Saturday, May 14, 2011

Mark Lee on Nuclear Disinformation in Japan

Just before Golden Week, we had a visit from college friend Mark Lee (previous post).

Mark has a post up on his blog, Goes to Twelve, about the international misunderstanding of the current situation in Japan. What he says is spot-on: large parts of the country have been completely unaffected by the disaster, and its a shame that foreign tourists have been staying away from Japan because of overblown radiation fears.

Basically, if you're planning a trip for anywhere west of Tokyo or north of northern Honshu, you shouldn't let the March disasters or the lingering nuclear situation in Fukushima affect your travel plans at all. Even Tokyo's safe, though inconvenienced by power shortages that could make the summer months uncomfortably hot.

Manila: Intramuros Tour with Carlos Celdran

Before our trip, I didn't know much at all about the Philippines. I still don't--it's an incredibly complex country, from its geography and its history right up through its linguistics--but thanks to Carlos Celdran, I know more than I used to.

Carlos Celdran is something of a local celebrity in Manila, and thanks to Lonely Planet, he's gained some recognition among visitors from overseas, too. He's a performer by training, but in the Philippines, the line between performer and politician is always a bit blurred: Celdran is also an activist for reproductive health and the prevention of HIV/AIDS, and as such an outspoken critic of the Catholic Church in the Philippines.

Each of Celdran's tours is essentially a play: Wikipedia describes Celdran aptly, not as a tour guide, but as "the producer, director, and actor in a one-man, multi-venue costumed performance, leading patrons through the city as he alternately acts and narrates along the way." The result is a unforgettable, entertaining, and (yes) opinionated take on the long history of Manila and its role in the world. Throughout it all, Celdran demonstrates both his skill as a performer and his deep affections for the city, warts and all.

The tour we took, called "If these Walls Could Talk," was a walking tour of Intramuros (literally "inside the walls"), the historic heart of Manila before World War II.

Now, I'm a born pedant, so it's hard for me to resist the temptation to re-tell Celdran's story. But seeing as I can't hope to do justice to his version, I'll stick to some of the big, new ideas I encountered on the tour. Some of these ideas, I know, are inflected with Celdran's own political opinions, which frankly I kind of appreciate--something obviously opinionated makes you want to learn more, while something subtly opinionated can trick you into thinking it's even-handed.

Anyway, the big lessons I learned:

1. The Philippines weren't really a Spanish colony.

Yeah, yeah--the Spanish "discovered" it, and Ferdinand Magellan was killed there. (Seriously, just outside of Manila.)

But the Spaniards didn't really want the Philippines. Too far, not rich in the right resources (gold, silver). In the end, the Spanish just lumped it in as a far-flung province of Mexico and forgot about it. So when the Church came asking about all those unconverted souls over there at the other end of the ocean, the king basically handed the place over to the missionaries, who ruled the country as a quasi-theocracy.
The Pope's churches dominate the King's forts.
This arrangement an interesting demographic effect on the Philippines: because the Spanish sent no women, and the priests they sent were (in theory) celibate, there are actually very few people in the Philippines of Spanish descent.

Incidentally, Celdran is one of them: he can trace one part of his family back to a naughty 19th-century priest.

2. The American Period was . . . complicated.

I knew that the Philippines had been an American colony from the Spanish-American War (aka, "Remember the Maine," aka "the one where we got Puerto Rico," aka "the one Teddy Roosevelt fought in") until World War II (aka "Casablanca," "Band of Brothers," and the History Channel). I also knew that the US fought its first Vietnam in the Philippines against an uprising of locals fighting for independence.

What I didn't know was how mixed the American legacy in the Philippines was. The Americans brought a lot of good things to the Philippines: public education and mass literacy, modern infrastructure (including Philippine Airlines, Asia's first airline), secularism in government, and a semblance of democracy. The Americans also built a clear timetable for independence, and worked towards preparing the Philippines for self-government and democracy. There doesn't seem to be any question that the Philippines were better off under the Americans than they had been under the Spanish.

At the same time, the Americans also brought war. The American military presence made Manila a target for the Japanese, and American efforts to retake the city in the face of fierce Japanese occupation left Manila almost completely destroyed after the war. More completely destroyed, in fact, than any allied city but Warsaw.

Most signs like this in Intramuros have a line reading "Destroyed during the Battle of Manila in 1945."
This segment was by far the most powerful part of Celdran's tour. Under an old narra tree next to the ruins of a bombed-out US barracks, Celdran recounted the story of Manila's destruction. MacArthur, determined to return to the site of his defeat at the start of the war, bombed the ever-living heck out of Manila in an effort to reduce the Japanese defenses. At the same time, as the outlook for Japan was growing grim, the Japanese army began to systematically exterminate the Filipino citizens of Manila. He punctuated the story with an overhead shot of an American bomb falling on an already-destroyed Intramuros. Celdran's telling is a tragedy: a city and a people caught between two greater powers.

Overall, about a million Filipinos died in the war, with about 100,000 killed by the Japanese in the Manila Massacre. And while Manila has boomed since the war, sprouting a dozen bustling satellite cities, old Intramuros has never recovered, and the scars of the war are still visible around the town.
A memorial marking a mass grave for victims of the Manila Massacre.
Anyway, if you go to Manila, Celdran's Intramuros tour is an absolute must. I'd even say that, if you only do one thing in Manila, take Celdran's Intramuros tour. It's the best introduction there is to the city's rich and tragic history: it will leave you fascinated and wanting to learn more.

The tour also has something for the kids: a horse-drawn carriage ride . . .
. . . and two snacks!
That's halo-halo, or "mix-mix," the Philippine national dessert.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

An Ode to the Manila Airport Hotel

The Manila Airport Hotel is a lot like Manila itself: shabby, inexplicable, but somehow endearing. On my last night in the Philippines, as I lay awake waiting for MacArthur's next Return, I composed an ode to the Manila Airport Hotel. It goes something like this:

Oh, Manila Airport Hotel! Though the Fates
To us mere hours did allow, forever will my breast
Bear the bruises from your venerable boxsprings.
Even now, though a thousand miles do distance me
From your Spartan embrace,
Can I smell the sweet damp emanating from your carpets.
Wherever on this Earth I roam, I can promise this:
I will carry with me, imprinted on the eye of my mind,
The supernatural glow of your parking lot
Through the bottommost inches of the window--
Left uncovered, in your infinite wisdom,
By the yellowed curtains, once-white.
How could I, mere mortal, ever hope to sleep,
In the presence of such luxury
As a twelve-inch television
And a shower giving water both hot, and--yes!--cold?
Lo! There is nothing left for this poor wanderer
But to steel himself against the day
When he can hear the sweet song of disdainful silence
Ringing out from a reception desk,
And secret himself away in peaceful solitude
Above the teeming midnight KFC.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

UPDATE The Senseitions on Picasa Web Albums: The Philippines

The web albums aren't quite working the way I'd hoped, so I'm going to take them down for the time being. Sorry!

The Senseitions on Picasa Web Albums: The Philippines

EDIT: This isn't working the way I thought it would, so I've taken the album down for now. Sorry!

Some readers have expressed interest in seeing more of our photos, but Nana and I have been reluctant to post all of them here--both because we don't want the blog to become a photo bucket, and because it can take a long time to upload photos to Blogger.

So I've started uploading our photographs to Picasa Web Albums. The first album, consisting of photos from last week's trip to the Philippines, is ready! You can find it here:

2011-05 Philippines

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Senseitions New Feature: The Toilets of Asia

(This guy, from the same location as the toilet in this post, could totally use that toilet right about now. And maybe a urologist.)

Looking back on our time in Korea, and some of the crazy places we've traveled since then, I wish I'd started this feature earlier. From a material cultures historian perspective, such blog posts would be providing a valuable service! Do you realize how many gaps there are in our historical knowledge of hygiene practices, simply because people were too shy to document them? (This reminds me - if I ever go to New Delhi, I'm totally going to the Sulabh International Museum of Toilets). Do you realize how many unwitting tourists, incognizant of local "BYOTP" practice, end up in Chinese or Filipino toilets sans paper? At least one, I can tell you that much.

Basically, if you find this topic beneath you, skip this post. If you, like me, read that sentence and thought, "Dude, where else would a toilet be?", then read on, my friend! Porcelain glory awaits!

(Note: for the pedants among you, for the purposes of this new feature, the term "toilet" will be used UK-style; i.e., encompassing the stall, the lounge, the entire evacuatory experience. Toilets themselves may or may not feature individually. I could call this "The bathrooms of Asia," but that wouldn't be anywhere near as funny.)

Today's featured toilet: Sonya's Garden toilet, Tagaytay, Philippines.

Gender: Female
Toilet type: typical Western-style seat
Special features: Sink in stall, ornamental shell windows and screens, rose water hand lotion
Noted for: stunning view from toilet

This toilet does lose some points for gender ambiguity, which, as anyone who was ever stymied by the "Blokes" and "Sheilas" signs at the Outback Steakhouse knows, can put a real cramp in your style. All you had to go on at Sonya's was the photographs hung on the stall exteriors, which look an awful lot like decorations. Yes, I was scolded for pushing the door on the left.

On the other hand, what a lovely bench!

View from toilet: two stories up, overlooking private garden. Occasional twinges of concern when you spotted people in the garden and wondered if they can see you back; fears mostly allayed by awkward angles and dense vegetation. The overall tone of the bathroom is restful and natural.

Windows visible above and in the next shot. These wooden frames are actually lined with translucent shell, which was significantly less expensive than glass for most of Filipino history. Our friends from the Philippines told us that the ones in use today are generally salvaged from pre-WWII buildings and can sometimes be used as an indicator of quality restaurants, since they indicate attention to detail and connections to the traditional and the local.

Overall verdict: Highly recommended! A must-pee!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Warm Welcome in Fukuoka, after a Long Trip Home.

Got back to Fukuoka last night to a pleasant surprise: the weather had finally turned!

The return trip itself, however, was less than pleasant. It basically took us two days to get back from Puerto Princesa: a Friday evening flight back to Manila, a night at the Manila Airport Hotel (more later), a Saturday morning flight to Taipei, then finally, after a long layover, a flight from Taipei to Fukuoka.

To make matters worse, I spent Friday night and most of Saturday with what Nana and I have dubbed a case of  MacArthur's Return. (The Philippino version of Montezuma's Revenge--there's an explanation of the MacArthur, but it's definitely not family-friendly.)

Probably had something to do with consuming three (delicious) mango shakes in the span of about twelve hours. Lesson learned!