Fred grew up in Manila, so getting a chance to be back was really a highlight of the cruise for him. The rest of us were curious to see what his childhood home is like these days. The kids had never been to Manila and it had been over a decade since my first and only visit. We knew that the ship would be docking near the area where Fred’s Dad used to work, so he planned to take us on a walking tour first.
The weather was hot and humid. It reminded me of Louisiana, but on one of those days in the middle of July when the humidity reaches 100%. We followed Fred through the crowds at the port, past the tour guides and drivers selling their services, and watched him surprise one person after the other with his fluent Tagalog. One cab driver tried to take advantage of us, offering a taxi at an outrageous price (in English). Fred immediately, and in a very annoyed tone, shouted something in Tagalog at him. When I asked, he said that he told him to back off because he lived here. Kayla, Kyle, and I all exchanged knowing glances. There was no doubt in our minds that Fred, in fact, was home.
We didn’t bother with street names, since Fred knew where he was going. There was a huge group of Filipinos walking in the same direction that we were all going. These were family and friends of our ship’s crew members. Fred, of course, became the center of conversation. Some of them were staying at The Manila Hotel, which was not even ½ a mile from where the ship docked. This was really smart, since they could spend time together without having to deal with the notorious Manila traffic. We’d get a taste of it ourselves, but more on that later.
We stopped by The Manila Hotel first, so that Fred could show us what it looked like in the lobby. He said that it used to be one of the finest hotels in Manila, and at one point was rated one of the top 10 in the world! After passing through a metal detector and putting our bags though an airport-style conveyor belt scanner, we got to see for ourselves that it could still rival some of the higher-end hotels. Fred told us that the security was new, as was the coffee shop in the lobby. We didn’t linger, because we were looking for a place to change money. The front desk attendant admitted to Fred that the exchange rate there was really poor, so we left in search of an ATM.
As we walked further down the main street, Fred pointed out several things to us, some of which I didn’t catch because he was walking in front of me and his voice was being drowned out by the relentless traffic. There was a statue that he showed us that was of a famous Filipino, José Rizal; it was located in Rizal Park (no surprise on the name) where he used to go every New Year’s to watch fireworks. I wasn’t feeling all that well and the heat was really zapping my limited energy. I said as much to him, so we stopped at the first place we found (which happened to be a Starbucks). Fred continued on to the ATM while the kids and I got some bottled water and rested for a bit. I was shocked to find that the bottled water at Starbucks was only about $.50 each. Back home in CA, that same water would easily be $2.
While we waited, the kids and I tried to access the internet, which turned out to be impossible since there didn’t seem to be any wifi at Starbucks. We then discussed our plans for the rest of the day.
Kayla and I were excited about heading to the Mall of Asia. She wanted to get her haircut and I was looking forward to a mani/pedi. Fred had already made us hip to the fact that professional beauty & spa services are fantastic and really inexpensive here. Once Fred returned from the ATM, we got a cab and headed straight for the mall.
While we drove the few miles, I was thinking that the traffic in Manila was not as terrible as I remembered. We were actually moving and it just didn’t seem like the non-stop traffic jam that I recalled from my previous trip. The cabbie and Fred discussed the fact that the entire area where we were driving was part of a land reclamation project. Nothing that we saw on the way to the mall was familiar to Fred, since it would have been underneath the water in Manila Bay when he was a kid. Even the area where his Dad worked had changed so much that most of it was not recognizable, either – and the mall itself, well, it could have been a mall from just about anywhere in the world. Other than the people shopping and the language used on the signs, there wasn’t much to distinguish it from other places. We did have to go through another round of security to enter, but it was more relaxed than the one we’d been through at the hotel. The guard simply glanced into my unzipped purse and let me through.
Since we hadn’t been able to find men’s briefs at any other port in Asia, we went straight to a department store (one that Fred was familiar with) and picked up a few pairs for him. It reminded me of a Kmart, but with much better customer service. In any case, the lines at checkout were really long, so Fred opted to leave them behind. As hard as it was to find them, I wasn’t surprised. Anyone who knows Fred at all will know that he has limited patience for things like waiting in line.
The mall is really huge, so Fred got directions to the area with salons and spas. As we walked there, we were mobbed several times by huge groups of small children screaming “trick or treat” and asking for candy. This was one of the best parts of the day! Fred explained that many of the kids from the poorer areas of town come to the mall on Halloween for trick or treating. Had we thought of this in advance, I would have loved to have handed out candy to them!
We walked into one of the salons. They were able to take Kayla for a haircut right away, but I would need to wait for 30 minutes for the mani/pedi. We left Kayla in good hands and told the receptionist that we’d walk around the mall and return in half an hour. We finished scouting out the beauty and spa services area for the best massage place and then decided to sit on a bench in front of Chilis restaurant and rest for a few minutes. While we were there, a young boy and his father came up and asked to take a photo with all of us and then Fred alone. I was accustomed to the constant stares, but that had never happened before. Fred (and the rest of us), without a single stitch of a Halloween costume among us, were still one of the most fascinating sites for the locals in the mall. Indeed, we were the only caucasians that I saw in the mall, other than one couple we ran into at the same salon who were also from the cruise ship.
It was soon time for me to get the mani/pedi, so we walked back to the salon. Kayla’s hair was just about done by then. Fred and Kyle waited for her and then the three of them took off on their own to stroll around the mall. Eventually Fred came back to get me, having left the kids with cash to get food somewhere. We paid for Kayla’s haircut and my mani/pedi, which was only the equivalent of about $16. We then walked a few shops down and got a massage.
By the time the massage was over, the kids were waiting for us outside. We were shocked at the time, since the massage therapists had actually gone over time on our massage. We had to rush down to the street and grab a cab, which we did as quickly as we could. We had about 30 minutes to get back to the ship. This was when we experienced our first taste of Manila traffic and even then it wasn’t at its worst. It was still moving, but it was taking way longer to get back to where we started, which was just a few miles away. By the time we reached the left turn that led into the port, we were already late; plus, we had been stuck at the same light for about 10 minutes. Fred and I gave each other a look, discussed in a few words what we were both thinking, paid the cab fare, and told our shocked kids to get out of the car in the middle of the busy street. We then jumped the three-foot-high median and wove through the oncoming cars to get to the other side of the intersection. We made our mad dash to the ship with onlookers yelling “Takbo!” (which means “Run!” in Tagalog) and the theme from Rocky being played by a local brass band in the background. It was a moment I will never forget. They had us all laughing the entire way.
I love the feeling in Manila. The people are laid back and fun loving. Everyone speaks English, but the local language is just downright cool, and the kids and I have been trying our best to speak it when we can. It’s so much easier to learn a new language here, because people are so helpful and encouraging. The entire community feels uplifting. Not everything (like electricity and wifi) works all of the time and traffic can be more frustrating than anywhere I’ve ever been, but the latin culture is relaxed and upbeat. I can’t wait to return for our much longer trip in March and April! Mamaya!