Halo Halo


David Whitley takes on the big Asian city that many travellers hate, and finds that Manila has got a character that sets it apart


A swarm of horse-drawn carts and pedicabs fight through Manila’s notoriously savage traffic. Their operators seem to be enjoying the race, weaving in and out of the cars that gridlock the junctions. We dive down some of Intramuros’ quieter streets, headed for the Ateneo.  We arrive, and the former campus of Manila’s most highly regarded university is a bare patch of rubble. Next to it is what used to be the San Ignatius church. It’s just a shell.


Carlos has brought us here for a reason. It’s to tell the tale of what happened to Manila during World War II. The Philippine capital came out of it very badly indeed, and Carlos isn’t about to gloss over it. Carlos Celdran is an odd phenomenon. His walking tours – with a quick pedicab scoot across town thrown in – have become a Manila success story. He’s an engaging entertainer, with a Buddha-like figure and a range of twitches and knowing looks that seem to have been borrowed from Martin Freeman in The Office. He doesn’t do tours, either. He calls them performances. And that’s really what they are – theatrically embellished romps through Manila’s history.


It all centres on Intramuros, which is the city’s historic heart. The wall from the Spanish colonial era still surround it, and the buildings evoke Latin America rather than South East Asia. Many of them aren’t in a particularly good state – no-one would claim Manila is the cleanest city in the world – but they do create a feel that’s unique for Asia. What happened to Intramuros in World War II was horrific, however. After being forced out by the Japanese in 1942, US general Douglas Macarthur vowed that he would return. He did so hubristically in 1945, when the sensible option would have been to move to easier-to-capture locations nearer Japan and come back for the Philippines later.


Of course, the Japanese weren’t prepared to go give up. And while they were committing widespread atrocities against the local population, the Americans were bombing the city to smithereens. The city that US presence had turned into a thriving, beautiful “Pearl of the Orient” since 1898 was destroyed in the name of saving it. Over 100,000 Filipino civilians were killed in the entirely avoidable carnage; only Warsaw suffered more damage.


The Manila of today stems from this. People moved away from Intramuros; the memories and the piled-up bodies were too much to take, and began to sprawl out across the numerous cities that are known as Metro Manila today. Manila isn’t pretty. It has undeniable problems with poverty and homelessness. But it does have an exuberance that is hard to find in any other big Asian city. The garishly-decorated jeepneys, the full-throttle karaoke bars on every corner, the willingness to take up any excuse for a celebration – they’re what make Manila different.


It was Asia’s first genuinely multicultural city. Indian shopkeepers would sell Italian food to Filipinos; a people of Malay skin, Chinese eyes, Spanish surnames, English lingua franca and American leanings. Such mixtures play a major part in the Philippines’ role as Asia’s odd man out.


At the end of the jaunt around Intramuros, Carlos gives everyone a glass full of what he calls the Filipino national dessert. Halo-halo (literally, “mix mix”) throws everything in – condensed milk, shaved ice, nuts, fruits, jellied sweets and luminously-coloured stuff of unknown origin. “It’s far, far too much,” admits Carlos. But it’s nothing if not distinctive.


Manila itself fits into that acquired taste bracket. Most criticisms of the city are valid; but it’s never, never boring.


Do it yourself: Visit Celdrantours.blogspot.com for more information on Carlos Celdran’s “performances”.


Disclosure: David was a guest of the Manila Hotel (Manila-Hotel.com.ph) – the city’s grand old dame. Even if you don’t stay there, it’s worth nipping into the lobby for a people-watch and entertainment. There always seems to be something going on.





David Whitley finds Lake Taal in the Philippines far more appealing once he tackles things his own way


The wooden slat on the boat creaks as I step on it. This is not an altogether encouraging sign. It’s not a lake I’m particularly keen on falling into, for a start. The unfortunate Filipino penchant for treating the world as one giant bin sees all manner of discarded goodies lapping up on the shore, with a few dead fish thrown in for good measure.


This, of course, would suggest that Lake Taal is a repulsive grotfest. It is not. Gloss over the water quality – you don’t come here to swim anyway – and it has an extraordinary beauty. A couple of hours drive south of Manila, the lake lies inside a large volcanic crater. It was once attached to the sea by a small channel, but volcanic activity over the last 200 to 300 years has seen the channel close and the lake slowly turn from saltwater to freshwater. Inside it are scores of little islets, the main one of which is a volcano in itself. So that’s a volcano within a lake within a volcano. And it’s our target.


The only way to the island is on a bangka, which is essentially a motorised version of an outrigger canoe. They have bizarre high ends that look make the bangkas look a little like upturned Mandarin moustaches, and they’re what the local fishermen ply their trade in. But when they’re not fishing, these chaps will happily ferry tourists across to the island for the requisite number of pesos. It’s a surprisingly choppy half hour voyage, but there’s no shortage of people at the other end willing to greet the hardy sailors.


For the small community that lives on the island, forever in danger of being made homeless if the volcano starts getting too feisty again, income sources are few. Hence the queue of guides wanting to escort visitors to the main crater and the sad-looking horses that trundle up and down there.  I want to walk it, but I don’t know where the track is or how long it will take. “It’s a long way,” I’m told. “It will take too long.”


I’m eventually cajoled into taking the horse and guide. It’s not that I object to paying to visit; I just want to pay and do it my own way; in relative peace. As it happens, the walk would have taken 45 minutes to a hour – just right as far as I’m concerned, even if it does involve getting a bit sweaty as I lumber up the hill. Instead, I find myself on top of a poor beast that’s probably too small to happily carry me. What should be a joyful experience is a saddening, shame-inducing one.


At the top, men with golf clubs are offering visitors the chance to hit a golf ball into the crater lake. Yep, that’s right, there’s a lake inside a volcano inside a lake inside a volcano. And there’s another island in the middle of that (albeit not a volcano). It’s all very Russian dolls. But it is absolutely gorgeous. From the crater rim, the view extends for miles around; the crumpled green landscape of south-west Luzon Island has seductive dips and curves, filled with palm trees and pineapple plants, studded around the edges by yet more soaring volcanoes.


I say goodbye to the horse for the walk back down. It’s much easier to take everything in and see how the island is essentially in the centre of a grand natural arena. I slow down to absorb it as horses and riders hurry past. It’s a pretty special part of the world; well worth running the bangka gauntlet for.


More Articles...

  1. 10 things to do
  2. Eating out