It was my first holiday alone and I was nervous. Would I be safe?
I’d survived the 20 hour flight, thanks to a Singapore Airlines voucher giving me a free shower, like the relief of a wash after a festival.
Cebu City is a bustling, chaotic, hot, noisy, dusty city of around 100,000 people packed into a small space.
My Grab app would not give me an option to hail a taxi so I got a metered one. “Make sure the meter is running when you get in” Lonely Planet advised, so I checked.
The driver, Marlin, had a side business as a tour guide. He put the price up by 200 pesos (about £3). When I asked why he said “I haven’t changed the sign yet.” He had two children, a girl of 4 and a boy age 14. The girl had been a surprise and he was still paying off the emergency caesarian.
Rows of cars trailed as far as the eye could see until the early hours. My tour guide dropped me off at 5pm and didn’t get home at midnight, on Valentines Day.
He was back to pick me up at 9am “no problem with traffic this morning, I come straight here!”.
It was cheaper than official tours and more flexible. I could go where I wanted, when I wanted. I could have lunch with him at McDonalds or nothing, as we didn’t have enough time, so I passed. After the 20 hour plane journey I still couldn’t stomach a burger.
Grey oblong concrete blocks rose into the sky, but they weren’t very high. It was an urban jungle.
There were only some skyscrapers in the Central Business District, and a mall which only took cash. Fortunately the restaurants outside it took card payments, as you got charged for withdrawals unless you used the HSBC ATM kiosk at the back round the corner.
There were no lanes on the roads and scooters, bikes and rickshaws were weaving around and jeepneys which are open air vans, their buses.
We drove first to the Taoist temple, built in 1967 in one of the wealthiest areas, the gated hilltop community of Beverly Hills. Surrounded by the first bit of greenery I saw, skyscraper fingers framed the horizon. There were pagodas, dragons on the roofs and fountains. I admired the painted ceilings in the tranquillity.
We then went to the city’s museum, a former American jail. It explained the history of Cebu and the islands, from the original bamboo and flax huts and reliance on fishing, to a failed invasion of Cebu by the Portuguese who were beaten by machetes, and then the Spanish in 1521, who decided to have an artillery attack from the boat before coming ashore and taking over with the famous Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese national, as their captain.
They brought Catholicism and they are said to have found a figure of the baby Jesus, the “Santo Nino” and that this kept them safe. The five walled watch tower on Panglao and the fort of San Pedro did as well. Eventually the Philippines wanted independence from Spain and there were frequent uprisings. In this climate the Americans came and conquered the islands with the help of the rebels, in 1901 after a two year war. But hopes of independence were dashed as the Americans took over.
The island nation then fell to the Japanese in December 1941, who established strict military rule in which anyone carrying local banned currency was killed. But the money continued to be used in the black market. Notices were put up everywhere warning of heavy physical punishment for any disobedience. Some locals were put in Prisoner Of War camps and there was a shirt there from someone that had worked in it for five months without being given another. They were beaten regularly by the fearsome Kempe-tei, the prison guards. The Americans helped the guerilla Filipinos once more, and this time The Philippines were granted independence, in 1946.
There was a chronological trail of artefacts, from Japanese guns to a ceremonial Afghan sword bought from merchants.
I realised I’d been about two hours and felt guilty, it must be hot waiting in that car. The driver was cross, “you take too much time, we late now, you must go faster”.
We stopped at the Basilica, a church with a piece of cross in it apparently from Magellan’s voyage, but I couldn’t find it! I saw the replica, which was enclosed in a stone dome with a nice painted ceiling. Then I queued up to see the holy relic, the Santo Nino, said to be found by the Spanish when they first landed and which brought good luck to the locals, as they all kissed and touched the glass, muttering and crossing themselves. There was a prayer area outside with stone carvings of what I had just seen and the arrival of the Spanish.
I then visited a recent towering monument built in the 1990s, showing the settlement story, mostly with figures and with some boats and buildings. The Santo Nino was there as it is in every historical depiction.
Down the road on the right was the oldest house. We had been by the oldest street, a wide road with grey concrete blocks on either side. It was one of the ugliest cities I had seen, but the pleasant kind people I met made up for it. I got approached repeatedly by the same man to buy plastic pearls. Once in the house I was given a tour in English. It had been bought from the Filipinos by Chinese merchants in the 1600s. They had decorated the house with jade ornaments and intricately patterned blue and white vases. It had then stayed in the family for generations. The house was made of thick wooden beams and it was cooler than outside but still warm and airless.
Outside a father and son were playing a duet on a small harp and ukelele. The boy was about four and had obviously had a lot of practice.
I went to another old house, Casa Gorado. I am not sure how old as I was concentrating on the animation on the board in front, which showed how the Spanish had moved the Cebuanos up the hill away from the fishing by the coast, to land that they could not farm because the soil was unsuitable. They could grow corn though. The Spanish arrived in 1565, setting fire to a village and blasting another with cannons. Then Chinese merchants began to settle in the 1600s and they were allocated a part of town near the Cebuanos, but they were only allowed to trade if the changed their surname to a Spanish one and converted to Catholicism.
We finished the tour with the San Pedro fort. It looked grand from the outside but once in it was just the wall and nothing much was left. It isn’t worth visiting, but it is a good stop if you want to be near the port, as you go up the drive and right and it is down the road a short distance on foot.
My taxi driver decided to be honest and stick to his original price, so I paid him the inflated amount he first quoted in appreciation. I navigated the poorly signed full port and off I went over a smooth sea to Tagbilaran…