Outside Looking In By Jerick Aguilar Updated March 25, 2009 12:12 AM
When I called one of my closest friends upon arrival in the Philippines last month, he suggested -- soon after we scheduled a rendezvous to catch up on each other's lives-- that I sign up for one of Carlos Celdran’s “Walk This Way” tours. He said he has joined the “If These Walls Could Talk” tour (a walking tour of historic Intramuros) and he just loved it. Carlos, he said, is an animated tour guide with an unconventional and, oftentimes, comical way of narrating historical and other anecdotal information.
My friend’s father is a Professor of History at the University of the Philippines and he is into history himself, yet he also mentioned to me how he learned new things from Carlos during the tour (and enjoyed other things as well).
At first, I wasn’t interested at all. Whenever I travel outside the Philippines, I am usually on a budget and would rather spend the money on souvenirs and postcards. I oftentimes bring good guidebooks as well as bits and pieces of tourist information printed from websites.
Sometimes, I pretend to be part of a tour group and listen in to what the tour guide is saying. So I don’t normally want to spend money on something that I can avoid paying or things I can have for free. Also, I have been to Intramuros a couple of times already (to watch a play and attend a friends’ wedding).
But a week before leaving the Philippines for Egypt, the same friend called again to ask me if I'd like to join him in Carlos’ “Downtown Express” tour (a stroll through Binondo and Quiapo). Choosing between saving money and spending more time with him, I chose the latter. Before this tour, I believe I had only been to Binondo twice or thrice as a child, so I surmised it would be good to see our Chinatown again at the age of 33.
As for Quiapo, it induces childhood memories of going to Quiapo Church with my parents (with me standing on top of the pew during the Mass). So I told myself why not visit this place once more. Given my initial refusal (or make that, stinginess), these three reasons justified my signing up for the tour.
The walking tour started at exactly 3 p.m. and, as usual, I was late. For some reason, I thought it was “Filipino time” that is always at work anywhere (i.e. an extra 30 minutes or more) but I realized this is not true. While in a taxi going to the meeting place, I saw a group of tourists pass by with my friend among them. I immediately asked the driver to drop me right there and then, paid my exact fare (I said I am stingy), and tried to catch up with them. They just came from Plaza Ruiz, and sure enough, they were following Carlos inside an old building. Here, Carlos recounted how some of the Chinese people at that time “hispanized” themselves to become integrated in the Spanish-colonized Manila.
True enough again, my friend was right about Carlos. He is not your typical tour guide. Maybe it's because of his theater background, but I think it was his enthusiasm, sense of humor, and pizzazz when talking about our history that really attracted me to his tour and gave my full attention to it. He even had props to add more authenticity to his words -- a plate of china hidden in his sling bag that he showed us during his pitch on Chinese merchandise and trade, as well as old photos and various illustrations in a binder that he flipped back and forth during the course of the tour.
Not to give the whole tour away, I found myself taking a lot of pictures in every corner that we visited (which I didn’t realize until I started uploading the photos the day after). This is actually what I always do whenever I'm on vacation – in a new country, that is. I remember how travel mates would just leave me behind because I stay in a place longer than usual – a third of the time enjoying the sights and two-thirds of it using up my digital camera’s memory and battery. And so my friend and I were left behind by the group but Carlos patiently waited for us to catch up with them before he started his next spiel.
If I'm traveling, I usually spend a significant amount of time in local shops, splurging money I saved up by not paying for an organized tour. Since I already paid for the "Downtown Express" tour, I told myself that I should not go shopping instead. That's what I thought because I wasn't able to resist buying several flavors of “hopia” (Chinese pastry) in Ongpin Street; sampaguita essence at the Evangelista Herbalist Market to use as massage oil in lieu of the usual lotion or powder (and I was even thinking of buying “gayuma” or love potion); and candles of different colors representing different wishes beside Quiapo Church. I even spent some money to have my tarot read! (And one of the cards said I'm going to find true love soon – so there's really no need to buy that potion!) In short, I never expected do the "touristy" stuff in my own country.
Overall, I really enjoyed the tour. I had three reasons signing up, and another three for appreciating it – my friend, Carlos, and a new appreciation for Manila. At the end of the tour, Carlos said, “If you cannot change the way Manila looks, you can always change the way you look at Manila.” And of course I did.
I used to hate Manila, especially after coming home to the Philippines after my first overseas trip to Australia when I was 19. I didn’t like the chaos, the noise, and the pollution. But after this tour, I see “life” instead of chaos and hear “survival” instead of noise. (Sorry but I still see the city as very polluted.) By life, I refer to the busy activity in Manila’s streets where it is never boring as there is always something happening; and by survival, I mean jeepney drivers beeping their horns and vendors shouting their wares to passersby struggling to make a living.
My only concern is that my friend and I were the only Filipinos in the group. The rest of them were of other nationalities. Our Social Science teachers have always told us in grade school: “Huwag maging dayuhan sa sariling bayan (Don’t be a foreigner in your own country).” I guess, on one hand, most of us are since we don’t know a lot about our history, culture, and heritage. On the other hand, most of us should be "foreigners" in our own country, joining tours, being curious about people and places, and changing our view of a city and gaining a better perspective of the place and of life than the last time we visited it.