We started planning our round the world trip over a year before leaving, and quickly formulated a basic itinerary. We planned to start in New Zealand and then visit Thailand and Vietnam before moving onto other parts of Asia, followed by Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and finally South America. Looking at the map we realized that a flight from New Zealand to Thailand would take us over many new and interesting places, and that a stop along the way might be warranted. We considered several counties in the South Pacific, including Fiji and Palau, but decided against them mostly due to cost. Both flying to and traveling within those countries is relatively expensive. We also considered Bali but Allison had already been there and I thought it might be overly touristed. We delayed the decision until less than a week prior to leaving when we finally purchased tickets to the Philippines.
From Auckland, New Zealand we flew to Brisbane, Australia for a brief layover before continuing onto Manila. Leaving the airport we emerged into the typical chaos of an Asian metropolis: the heat and humidity were oppressive, all types of vehicles clogged the streets, and we were an easy target for anyone selling anything with our light skin and bulging backpacks. Having read that taxis from the airport charge a fixed and inflated price, we walked to the departure area to find a driver willing to use his meter. We quickly found one and loaded our bags into the car. After a few short kilometers it became clear that although he was willing to use the meter, he wanted an additional 100 pesos. The extra two dollars were relatively trivial, but more out of principle we asked to get out of the car. There were plenty of taxis at the gas station where he dropped us, but none of them would use their meters, gesturing to the rush hour traffic to justify their 300 to 500 peso rates. After about five minutes of fruitless negotiations two police officers happened to pull into the gas station. I asked them what we should expect to pay; 150 pesos would be about right, and we should talk to them if anyone tried to charge us more. Having numerous such examples the officers had a brief discussion with one of the drivers, who then agreed to take us for 200 pesos.
We later learned that the officers may have underestimated the fare, and that 200 to 300 pesos would have been reasonable. In some countries the initial offer to a foreigner for any good or service will invariably be double or triple the fair selling price. However, as we traveled the Philippines we generally found that the paranoia instilled through previous travels and our guidebooks was largely unfounded. We were typically offered fair prices up front, and the Filipinos proved exceptionally helpful as we navigated their country. On multiple occasions while walking through a city we were offered transport and, after declining, the driver would provide directions to our destination. In other countries a driver might not be so forthcoming and instead continue to offer a ride, with full knowledge that the desired destination is half a block away and perfectly walkable.
Even without our backpacks the city weighed heavily on our shoulders, and we found that one day of exploration was more than enough. We wandered Intramuros, literally “within the walls” in Latin. The walled city within modern Manila served as the center of political, military, and religious power during three centuries of Spanish colonial rule. Intramuros was heavily damaged by bombing during World War II but has since been restored, and we spent a few hours walking among the historic homes and churches. We also toured Fort Santiago, part of Intramuros and the primary defense position for the Spanish government in the Philippines. Intramuros was at times interesting, but overall we weren’t particularly impressed. It’s possible that seeing the old moats filled to create a golf course may have somewhat detracted from our ability to appreciate the site’s historical significance.
Unable to book a flight for the following day, we spent our third day firmly entrenched in the Happy Coconuts Hostel, where we enjoyed the air conditioning and took advantage of the free and fast internet to plan our route through the Philippines. The highlight of our time in Manila may have been some very delicious and affordable meals at a Japanese restaurant near the hostel, as well as the staff’s amusement as I tested the limits of the business model that allowed inclusion of a “bottomless” ice tea on their menu.
On our fourth day we rose at 3:00 for a horrendously early flight and what would be the first of several long days of travel as we navigated just a sample of the 7107 islands of the Philippines.