We landed in Manila just after four in the morning. After a restless flight from Shanghai, stuffed into overcrowded and under-cushioned seats, the adrenaline of our “escape” from China had worn off and we were in a fog. Bleary-eyed and fatigued, we shambled off the plane and down the jet bridge towards customs. Walking down the brightly lit concourse, the only sounds were the echo of our footsteps and the occasional murmur of the other passengers from our flight. Manila Ninoy was deserted and we felt a little odd wandering through cavernous arrival halls on our own.
Passing through immigration was fast and unbelievably friendly. Smiling immigration staff welcomed us to the country as they stamped our passports. Perhaps it was the early hour, or perhaps they liked our faces, I don’t know, but the legendarily unfriendly immigration officer was nowhere to be found. We had another flight to catch at 7:30 a.m., to Cebu, so we made our way out of international security and then back in to the domestic departures area, which was surprisingly vibrant at such an early hour. Stores were open and blasting dance music. With bass thumping off the empty halls of the airport it was a dance party for no one. We needed pesos and snacks, so we wandered into one of the dance halls cum mini-marts. We bobbed our heads to the beat and, still unsure I had the term correct, I uttered a faint “salamat” to the smiling girl behind the counter who handed me my change. We made our way upstairs and headed to the check-in counters for AirPhil Express, our next carrier.
As we checked in to our second flight the girl behind the counter smiled the entire time and un-ironically referred to me as “Sir Anthony” after reading my passport. I was delighted that the queen had finally taken notice, and though I found her ambassador a strange choice, I am not a picky man. However, it didn’t end there. At every turn I was “sir” and Steph was “ma’am.” No matter who we spoke to this was always the case. It’s easy at first to be jaded and assume that only western tourists got that treatment, but as time went on we noticed it wasn’t just the westerners receiving honorifics, every customer was treated with the same respect regardless of creed. It was downright impressive.
After a short, but lovely, flight to Cebu a smiling security guard directed us to the area where the inexpensive taxis gather and sent us on our way. “Sir? Make sure to take a white one! Yellow ones cost more!” We had a ferry to catch in a little over an hour and our taxi driver assured us we would make it in time. After some pseudo-English wrangling and pointing to the map on my phone, we were on our way.
“Where do you go? On the ferry?”
“Uh, Bohol, Alona Beach.”
“Ah, good. Chocolate Hills?”
He seemed to immediately lose interest and turned to Steph: “Filipino? No? Half Filipino? No? Your mother, she is Filipino? No? *Things in Tagalog…* No?” Curiosity sated and the ends of his English skills reached, our driver settled in for the trip ahead.
This cab ride through Cebu served as our official introduction to the Philippine Islands, despite having been there for over five hours at that point, and we spent the next 30 minutes glued to the windows. All around us traffic roiled. It was only 8 a.m. and the streets of Cebu were packed. Garishly beautiful jeepneys full of people blasted by, leaving clouds of thick, black smoke in their wake. Everywhere motorcycles bobbed and weaved between the cars, some carrying three or four people and sundry goods. Traffic moved at a slow pace as lanes were ignored and every possible space was filled by a car or a motorcycle or a pedestrian or a stray animal. Our driver was intent, and every so often honked the horn to let the car in front of him know he was there, otherwise we snaked silently through the moving knot of steel and fumes in alternating bursts of speed and lingering pauses as the mass of life around us ebbed and flowed. Groups of men in the backs of pick-up trucks gazed at us curiously when they noticed us.
The road was bounded on all sides by shanties and lean-tos made from every conceivable material. All were covered with advertisements and color, and their corrugated metal roofs were beginning to fill the air with ripples from the mounting heat of the day. Everywhere we looked there was life and vibrance and activity, and though the poverty was generally extreme and the city was ramshackle at best, the Filipinos who were out seemed cheerful. Most where smiling and chatting with each other, as they took a leisurely breakfast. Though traffic was heavy and the street was congested, everyone seemed to take it in stride and things moved with a minimum of fuss. Soon enough we made it to the pier, and with time to spare we shouldered our bags and tried to forget we had been awake for 26 hours.
All around us the pier bustled with life. Boxes on hand carts were pushed in every direction and the salty, fishy tang of the ocean was pungent. We were quickly directed to the ticket window and signed our names into the manifest for the next ferry. After a sojourn in a staging area and our first encounter with a siopao (steamed chinese style buns filled with just about anything) we settled into our seats on the ferry and gazed out the heavily tinted windows. Cebu’s piers were much like the city: run down and largely ad-hoc in construction, but also, like the city, there existed a cheerfulness that seemed undeniable. Brushing away the soot and grime, and peering past the run-down buildings, it was easy to see that the heart of the Philippines is its people. At that point we had dealt only with people who are normally charmless and inured to the hapless tourist: airport security, a taxi driver, and transit staff. Yet we were greeted with nothing but smiles and helpfulness. Already we had confided in each other that we felt in our hearts that the Philippines would be good to us.
Despite our aches and heavy eyes we felt something new coursing through our veins. The Philippines had a vitality and an openness that felt fresh and exciting, and as our hearts beat a little faster some of the malaise of China seeped out of our bones. We felt lighter as we settled into our seats, listening to the jubilant chatter of the Filipinos all around us. We hadn’t known what to expect when we booked our flights out of China, but as Cebu’s pier slid away we began to believe our gamble had paid off.