In a corner of old Manila’s usually sedate historical district, a portly little man is standing to attention. He salutes with exaggerated pomposity and starts humming the national anthem in a harsh tone that reverberates off the old stone walls of Fort Santiago, while roughly 60 onlookers watch his strange performance.
“You might notice something about our anthem,” shouts the man when the cheering subsides. “People say that it’s similar to the French anthem only in reverse. In fact that’s a good rule of thumb to remember if you want to understand the Philippines – just imagine how things ought to be. Then get ‘em, pick ‘em up, turn ‘em around, shake ‘em up, and that’s what you’ll get here.”
Carlos Celdran has a delightfully unique way of looking at things. “We are like a huge bowl of halo halo,” he continues. “It’s hard to describe for anyone who hasn’t seen it but the national dessert of Philippines has got shaved ice, jelly, syrup, fruit, evaporated milk, sugar, even sweet potato, kidney beans and sometimes grated cheese. In fact, it’s got way, way too much of everything, like our country.”
Celdran’s talks are irreverent, comic, ribald, incisive and frequently, utterly hilarious. He has used his training as an actor to forge a career as an immensely popular tour guide. He’s become known as the ‘Pied Piper of Intramuros’ because of the huge crowds that follow him on his daily stroll around this historical district.
Intramuros literally means ‘inside the walls’; it’s an area that is not only atmospheric, evocative and charmingly timeless but also crucial to visit if you want to understand what made Manila the sprawling city it is today.
Constructed almost completely of stone blocks, the walled area was built by the Spanish during their occupation of Manila in the 16th century. It is today the oldest district in the Philippine capital.
“Manila was the second most-destroyed allied city of World War II,” says Celdran. “What’s most astounding is that we were flattened not by the Japanese but by our friends, the Americans. It was Imelda Marcos who rebuilt the old town.
“People are disappointed that we don’t have ancient monuments and buildings of our own but we never had any granite to build with, only volcanic stone, which remains very fertile in this tropical climate. Plants grow everywhere. We literally have to ‘shave’ our fort every six months,” Celdran proclaims as we pass the regal old gate of the fort that was built by Spanish conquerors in 1571.
What is perhaps most surprising about the crowd that surrounds Celdran as he leads his entourage across the fort’s lawns is that more than half of them are local Filipinos.
While humour is never far below the surface, Celdran never shies away from the dark and disturbing side of Intramuros’ history. Fort Santiago was a Japanese prison during the war; prior to that, it was used by the Spanish to incarcerate political prisoners including national hero José Rizal. There are bronze footprints implanted into the stone path that follow the rebel-author’s last walk as he departed for his rendezvous with the Spanish firing squad. Local folklore has it that if you walk in the footprints, you can sense the ghost of the great man.
The Americans popularised the image of José Rizal along with that of Coca-Cola, baseball and the wartime Jeeps that later morphed – with typical Filipino exhilaration – into the Jeepney public buses that now roar between Intramuros and the business district. Like the halo halo, they are also over-decorated. Festooned with mirrors, stickers, lurid artwork and lights (everywhere except where lights should be!), they have become an icon of national exuberance.
A short cross-town trip on a Jeepney should be considered a crucial part of any visit to Manila. But for a perfect experience, take the ride only as far as Intramuros and disembark for a far more restful mode of transport. Dozens of pedicabs (Manila's own iconic type of trishaw) creak amid pastel-coloured colonial houses and 25 horse-drawn carruajes still carry tourists as they once transported Spanish colonial leaders, Filipino nobility and the powerful priests of Intramuros’ seven churches.
“We enjoy laughing at ourselves. Just like the tourists who come here, we have a very confused idea of our own culture,” Celdran says. “We don’t have any traditional Asian dancing because we were subjugated by the Spanish for 333 years. We soak up everything like a sponge, we adopted their culture and they gave us their names. Then the Americans came and we latched on enthusiastically to all things American. We started calling our kids Muhammad Ali and Merry Christmas. And we were a trade centre, so we had influences from everywhere. I have a friend called Casio – obviously his father named him after the watch he’d just bought.”
Celdran describes his nation as ‘Uncle Sam’s beaten child’ – the mistreated and abandoned child of colonial fathers. But scratch the surface, and what has traditionally been seen as a lack of culture can instead be appreciated as a uniquely exciting blend.
Come to Manila with an open mind and a determination to absorb all the colourful sensations that you’ll find in Intramuros.