Which is why I love to travel to under hyped destinations, even places that people would never think to visit. Manila, Philippines is one of those cities and if you go in with low expectations (as we did) you are bound to be rewarded with an unexpected experience that could have you raving about the place when the trip is over.
The Philippines are a group of over 7,100 islands with some of the most stunning landscapes and beaches in the world and this is why most people visit.
Manila is simply a landing point, a place to catch a flight, renew your visa perhaps or take care of business, but it’s definitely not on many traveler’s trail.
We were tight on time and we had a choice. Get to know Manila, a city with very little appeal, at least according to most online reviews, or a more typical tropical, beach vacation.
I grew up on a farm, but live in Manhattan and I’m kind of a city boy at heart so we chose the less traveled route of spending our precious time in the Philippines with a stay in Manila.
At first I regretted it. The traffic was overwhelming. The grittiness of the city and getting around and the hot, hot sun reflecting off concrete & steel combined with the normal sights and sounds of an overloaded capital city was intense. Manila, like many urban areas in developing nations, are falsely seen as a beacon of hope to impoverished citizens who moved in to try to work their way into a more comfortable existence.
But then, about day 2 or 3, as we toured sites like Intramuros, Makati, Chinatown and outlying areas, I began to fall in love with Manila and more importantly the good-natured and fantastically friendly Filipino people.
It happened so slowly at first that I didn’t really notice, but Manila grew on me to the point that by the end, I didn’t want to leave. And this was, mind you, after 26 or so straight, grueling days of traveling and shooting (Manila was our last stop on our 4 country Southeast Asia tour).
We weren’t staying in luxurious accommodations. We were in fact living as many regular Filipinos lived but with, of course, the knowledge that we’d be leaving soon. We had a choice to be there, many do not.
Like those in Tondo. Tondo is a community of garbage pickers that essentially live in a garbage dump, doing what they can to get by and feed their families by sifting through garbage looking for food and salvageable items to sell or use. We visited with the Project Pearls organization and the entire crew agreed it was the highlight of our trip.
You won’t see Tondo in many travel brochures and on most if any other travel shows most likely. It may or may not cost us the chance at sponsorship or support from tourism industry types but that’s a small price to pay for telling the truth and gaining a new perspective on the world and in one’s life.
Tondo and other places like it (there are other similar communities in Manila such as Smokey Mountain), need not be the thing that governments and tourism bureaus try to hide. Indeed with more travelers than ever choosing voluntourism and giving back over the banality and sterility of a resort or all inclusive destination, these areas can be a draw to a whole new category of travelers.
I know there are some folks (someone’s always unhappy) who may say we are exploiting the living conditions of these folks for our own benefit and maybe that’s partly true. But if this exploitation leads to helping them then I’m all for it. The people of Tondo need it and organizations like Project Pearls and volunteer travelers are stepping in where the government is either unable or unwilling to.
Nothing new under the sun there. Governments will always be poor substitutes for neighbor helping neighbor. Even if that neighbor happens to be 8,000 miles away.