Monday, September 28, 2009

Cebu City, Discovered

CEBU CITY, the Philippines - The headline on this post is tongue in cheek, of course. People have been living in Cebu, one of the Philippines' leading cities, for hundreds of years. I discovered the place for myself just last week, just ahead of the typhoon that has devastated Manila this week, killing, at last count, 240 people in heavy flooding.

Cebu, located 375 miles southeast of the capital, has, thankfully, been spared the worst of Typhoon Ondoy. Like the rest of the country, Cebu - an island and province as well as a city - is on low-lying land, so it is vulnerable to ocean storms and to the threat of global warming.

I was based just outside the city at Shangri-la Hotels' comfortable Mactan Resort, a lovely place with white sand beaches, a luxurious spa called CHI, smart shops that smartly source goods from talented local artisans and good food, most of it international in style. Just outside the hotel grounds, everything changes, becoming more congested and visibly poorer. A few minutes drive puts you in Cebu City, which has a metropolitan population of 1.8 million people. I think all of them were behind the wheel when I explored the city. The traffic is epic.

The first major explorer to land in what is now Cebu City was the Spanish navigator Ferdinand Magellan, who made landfall in 1521 and was killed in battle there later that same year. Eventually, Spain colonized the Philippines and stayed for four centuries, until the early 20th century. Spain has left its imprint on the Philippines, where many people go under Hispanic names. Cebu City, dotted with whitewashed vintage churches and infused with a traditional form of Catholicism, reminded me a lot of Brazil. Some fellow travelers compared it to Central America. Cebu and the Philippines are, of course, Asian, but are unique among Asian societies.

The well-attended downtown cathedral, rebuilt several times, is a landmark of the city, as is a weathered cross that marks the spot where Magellan is believed to have first landed; it is now several hundred yards inland. The modern city, though it has a thriving tourist trade, doesn't depend on tourism, which is undoubtably good, given the sharp ups and downs of the travel industry. A port city, it is a center of trade and ocean shipping and manufacturing; the city is a center of furniture-making. It is also home to a number of music shops and at least one guitar factory. I watched local artisans fashion guitars by hand in the small plant, later taking some finished guitars and ukeleles off the wall to demonstrate their sound. One artisan-cum-salesman strummed "Has Anybody Seen My Gal'' while visitors browsed the factory.

Before visiting Cebu, I had never seen a Filipino city and had no clear idea what to expect. Bustling and industrious, Cebu, which is nevertheless marred by poverty, is not a pretty city. But it is lively, filled with the music and energy that marks so much of Filipino culture. On the fringes of the city, I saw goats, chickens, feral-looking dogs and the occasional cow wandering amidst vacant lots and people's homes. It is ironic that free-range poultry so beloved of yuppies and gourmets may be most in evidence in poor countries; people depend on them for meat and eggs, and don't necessarily depend on the huge factory farms that distinguish North American culture. As I rode around the city, I saw people packed into jitney buses, hanging on to trucks and piling into pedicabs, known locally as tricycles.

The energy and good-humor of Filipino culture amazed me. I wound up my visit with an al fresco supper at the resort, with the sound and sights of the sea washing up against the deck where I took food and drink. The next day, well inside security and just outside the entryway to my plane to Hong Kong, I saw something I'd never seen at an airport: A four-piece band playing upbeat music by the plane door, putting a lift in the step of boarding passengers.

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