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Full Circle

Day 88: Saigon to Manila

Manila Bay, Philippines 
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A jeepney being fitted out, Manila.
Michael Palin - Full CircleDespite, or perhaps because of, such grim statistics there is an almost manic liveliness to the place. It's December and getting on for Christmas time. American carols play on our minibus radio. Artificial gold and silver-foil Christmas trees are on sale by the side of the road and all around us in the traffic are the gleaming chrome hulls of a very particularly Philippine form of public transport - the jeepney. At the end of the Second World War, when the Americans took back the Philippines from the Japanese and turned it into a huge military depot, opportunist locals took surplus US jeeps and customized them into small buses. Fifty years on and, despite the advent of air-conditioned buses, taxis and even an overhead light rail system, the jeepneys, studded with every sort of lethal attachment and covered in stickers, transfers, multicoloured stripes and names ranging from the simple ('Jackie' or 'Fatima') to the sentimentally religious ('Mother of Perpetual Help' and 'Gift of God') are thriving.

You don't have to be long in the country to appreciate that the jeepney expresses the Filipino spirit: emotional, exuberant and celebratory, hearts ruling heads, endearing and unwary. We are following a truck marked 'Careful Movers', which lurches forward, its back door swinging wildly open.

On a stretch of reclaimed land along the curving sea front of Manila Bay are a series of portentous concrete pavilions built by Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos in the 1970s to glorify the presidential family that headed a pitifully poor nation. The buildings were regarded as so extravagant by a visiting Pope that he refused to stay in one. Beneath the foundations of another are workmen, buried when their scaffolding collapsed onto them. Legend has it that Imelda Marcos refused to stop the work in order to rescue them. Concrete was poured in over the bodies.

Later I brave the traffic canyon of Roxas Boulevard and walk down to the Metropolitan Museum of Art which I think must be the only Art Gallery in the world with the sign: 'Please Deposit Your Firearms Here' at the entrance desk.

I spend the rest of the day sleeping, eating (Lechon, roast suckling pig, seems to be the lone speciality of Philippine cooking) and trying to digest a fat dollop of culture shock.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Full Circle
  • Day: 88
  • Country/sea: Philippines
  • Place: Manila Bay
  • Book page no: 130

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