A curse on the Philippines?

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In my previous blog I wrote about natural disasters and about how they can have a huge impact on a city and living there. Well, I’m now in Cebu in the Philippines where this week a disaster of a different kind has left its mark on the city. Making global headlines, a passenger ferry collided with a cargo vessel about one kilometre from the shore and the death toll has recently passed the fifty mark and is expected to rise with many more people still unaccounted for. Yesterday I went for an evening stroll through the town and the many churches here were packed to the rafters with solemn words ringing out from the pulpit. It’s not the largest of cities, home to some 900,000, and so I’m sure there are hundreds of families who have been affected by the tragedy. During the day, however, there is an air of normality and it has been possible to go about my work normally.

Fish on a bike

Fish on a bike

The storm season of Asia is still going strong although the weather here in Cebu is rather pleasant at the moment. I spent last weekend in the capital of the Philippines, Manila, where the weather was also fine. However, as soon as I left the monsoon rains came. Now Manila has been deluged resulting in the closures of UK and USA embassies and malls, and a general standstill in many areas of the heaving sprawl of the city. I was fortunate – I missed the rains by a matter of hours, but reading the headlines of the ever-present Philippine Star newspaper this week it seems as through the country has been cursed.

Manila is a fascinating city but I wouldn’t have known that if it wasn’t for my first visit back in 1999. This time I headed straight from the airport to the area of Makati which is essentially a bubble of sanity and refinement within one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world. Away from Makati and things are very different. When I visited Manila back in 1999 as part of a university field-trip it was my first time outside of Europe and my first experience of a developing nation. Being the first, my visions and memories have obviously stuck with me – the abject poverty in some areas, the sweltering heat and humidity, the dusty chaotic streets and, of course, the jeepney.

Unique to the Philippines - the jeepney

Unique to the Philippines – the jeepney

Jeepneys (a cross between a jeep and a jitney) are unique to the Philippines and are often cited as a symbol of the country. They appear everywhere and add a real sense of colour and vibrancy to any street scene. After World War II there were thousands of surplus American military jeeps which were sold to the locals. The resourceful Filipinos then converted them by adding roofs and long benches and creating a vehicle that is a sort of cross between a bus and a jeep. As a cheap method of public transport they soon took off and are now regulated by the government, although the extravagant and flamboyant designs and paint-jobs remain.

So, although the jeepneys abound in Makati they are the only sense of the ‘real’ Philippines within the area. Saying that, however, maybe the ‘real’ Philippines is changing as the glitzy shopping malls become more and more popular. There were certainly many an expat milling around the hotels and shops of Makati but there were also thousands of the emerging Filipino middle class. Pretty much everything an expat would desire in terms of quality and availability of goods can be found in Makati and I have to say I was rather surprised how American it all seems. There is a real American influence, not least in the customer service, with the constant smiles and a “Welcome Sir”, whenever you cross the threshold into a shop. After a while this becomes rather grating as I try to get on quietly with collecting price data! The expansive (and still incomplete) Glorietta Mall in Makati is touted as the country’s most luxurious but it has not been without its problems. Since 2000 there have been three bomb attacks on the mall and a huge fire – and today it’s probably surrounded by floodwaters!

Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica

Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica

Before arriving in the Philippines I was out and about collecting data in Ho Chi Minh City in the south of Vietnam. More romantically known as Saigon, the city today is the largest in the country and accounts for almost 30% of the country’s industrial output. Although not the capital, it is still a bustling place and perhaps has more mopeds per square metre than anywhere else on the planet. I’ve mentioned before about mopeds in Taiwan but in Ho Chi Minh City it really is something else.

I find myself now in the lobby of the Quest Hotel in Cebu waiting for a taxi to take me to the airport from where I will be heading to Jakarta, my second visit there in less than a year. Just over the road from my hotel is the Ayala Center, the city’s most upmarket mall. I’ve been surprised by how developed Cebu is and, for once, I have not stood out as being a foreigner as there are many here. Although much smaller than Manila, Cebu is still the second largest metropolitan area in the Philippines and is an important port city. The port is home to 80% of the country’s shipping companies and shipbuilding in Cebu has helped the Philippines become the world’s fourth largest shipbuilder. As well as having a thriving tourism industry due to its location in the central Philippines amongst hundreds of islands, Cebu was also named this year by the strategic advisory firm Tholons as the eighth best destination globally for outsourcing

It is the Philippines’ fastest growing city and with promise ahead it is just a shame that my visit coincided with one of the darkest moments in its history.

About wanderingmark

World traveller, researcher, photographer, collector of interesting facts and cost of living data research for ECA International (www.eca-international.com).
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