Looking out to sea from Mactan Island off the coast of Cebu City, staring past palm trees that submerge at high tide, stands Arnold Schwarzenegger in a loincloth. He’s made of solid bronze, is carrying a scimitar and could have been pulled straight from his days as Conan. But, of course, this isn’t really Arnie, despite the (undeniable, perhaps intentional) facial similarity. This figure of Lapu Lapu, the indigenous tribal chief credited with hacking down Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan and leading an army to repel Spanish invaders in the 16th century, is a symbol of independent Filipino pride at its fullest.
Before heading to the Philippines, we asked plenty of Dubai-based Filipino expats what we should do there. Responses were usually in the touristic vein – lounge on beaches of white sand in Boracay; trek through Bohol’s Chocolate Mountains to find the world’s smallest primate; cruise through Palawan’s underground cave network. All are great ideas. But we wanted to understand a bit more about a community that has such a massive impact on Dubai, and see its residents doing their own thing on their own turf.
As the Philippines races out of 300 years of Spanish dominance, a decade of American intervention and turbulent economic times in the latter half of the 20th century, the statue of Lapu Lapu seems quite poignant and a good place to start. Every April, watched over by this big, bronze Arnie lookalike, the island of Cebu descends on this idyllic waterfront to re-enact the battle between Lapu Lapu’s tribe and the Spanish invaders. City workers don either loincloths or conquistador outfits and mock-battle it out in the island’s sandy bay.
Last year, two very potent symbols of Filipino pride came together on this ad-hoc battlefield: boxer Manny Pacquiao, arguably the world’s most famous Filipino right now, was flown in to play the part of Lapu Lapu. Needless to say, he was mobbed. Every major town seems to have some part in the story of this boy from the provinces, who battled his way to king-of-the-ring status in Vegas. He’s put his face to Nike and a local liquor, he has cafés and roadside stands sporting his name, and his face is everywhere.
Pacquiao seems like a worthy guide to the city. So on a lead to try to find one of Manny’s former gyms (the spot where he trained for the now-legendary Battle of Cebu bout in 2007), we take a trip in one of the public transport ‘jeepneys’ – reconstituted ex-military jeeps doused in neon colours and professions of faith – to pick our way through the city’s suburbs.
Cebu City feels as though it’s been carved through the dense green thickets that blanket the island. It gives the place a village atmosphere and a buzzing, steamy humidity. Couple this with the profusion of crumbling colonial Spanish architecture that remains remarkably intact across the island, not to mention the dancing figures silhouetted in every bar we pass, and the similarities with Latin America can’t be overlooked.
As the point of entry for Christianity (commemorated by a huge wooden cross where Magellan strode onto the island to mark the first circumnavigation of the globe), Cebu is firmly on the pilgrim trail. A predominantly and proudly Catholic country, it’s not uncommon to spot a monk with full brown Franciscan smock and bald pate strolling down the street. We muscle our way into the Basilica of Santo Niño, a vast and impressively frescoed cathedral, just as crowds spill onto cobbled streets after the Friday ‘novena’. We’re angling for a glimpse of the venerated and slightly eerie doll of Jesus that Magellan left behind on an early expedition.
Back on our own Pacquiao pilgrimage, we pass another statue of Lapu Lapu (this one, incidentally, has the look of Sylvester Stallone) and head through the Lebangon area, lit up at night by its multitude of stalls selling fried chicken and ‘balut’. This local delicacy consists of semi-fertilised duck embryo – first timers are instructed to eat it in the dark.
Jumping out of the car and trying to find a way into the big white concrete gym before us, we quickly attract the attention of a group of locals who are unsure what we’re doing here. But a mention of the golden word, ‘Pacquiao’, elicits smiles and their help in getting us in. Alas, it’s deserted, but the owner tells us that every day, groups of Manny-wannabes from the area descend on the gym.
We’re directed back into town in the direction of Mango Avenue, a strip of nightclubs and karaoke bars that backs onto a grimy neon-lit quadrangle of barbecue joints. Val, a Cebuano local, tells us that these cheap all-night barbecue spots are hugely popular with the city’s musicians, who rock up after hours to tear into unbelievably cheap roast chicken and the even cheaper bars.
Val insists that if we want to get a sense of what Filipinos get up to in their spare time, we have to witness the intrinsic position that karaoke occupies in Filipino culture. Sure, East Asia likes a singalong, but in the Philippines it’s a big, big deal. We take Val up on the offer and he leads us to one of Mango Avenue’s bars. Dark, moody and boasting the sort of serious atmosphere one might associate with a pool hall, we seat ourselves next to two earnest men who look like they’ve been labouring all day. One is singing Celine Dion’s ‘My Heart Will Go On’ in a perfect falsetto, while his friend stares straight ahead and drinks in silent reserve.
We’re clearly among professionals. Val explains that suitors use karaoke to serenade, with bad singers at risk of being kicked to the curb. Want to win over the inlaws? Bash out a stellar version of ‘Just The Two Of Us’. It also settles and starts fights. We should never pick Sinatra’s ‘My Way’, he insists: a poorly hit note or an abysmal rendition can lead to stern words. Many bars have taken it off the menu. ‘There’s an urban legend that someone was shot for singing it badly.’ Gulp.
But for all this build-up, we’re given a surprisingly warm welcome. Despite not being able to hit those eye-twitchingly high notes, we belt out a few more shambling versions of Western power ballads (followed by satisfying nods of approval) before stepping out into the night, bumping into hordes of locals scrambling into the nearby nightclubs.
With 7,107 islands to its name, it’s hard to pin down what makes this country tick. But in Cebu you at least get some idea. The Spanish influence is undeniable, in the abundant Catholicism and the courtliness-cum-karaoke serenading sessions. Yet it also boasts something very unique. It’s in the music they’re singing, the action hero-inspired version of history, the ubiquitous face of Manny Pacquiao: an all-abiding love of the Philippines that, for anyone venturing there, is truly infectious.
Travelling between the Philippines’ islands is very cheap and easy: we recommend doing two islands in a week. Here’s one reason to hop to a couple
Manila, Chinese cemetery
Yes, a cemetery. This is 65 hectares of burial land that, in accordance with Chinese beliefs, has been kitted out with all the mod cons that anyone in the afterlife could possibly need. Mausoleum with air con, built-in kitchen and even wi-fi? It’s a bizarre, slightly morbid, no less fascinating sight to behold.
Sure, there are beaches here to rival the Caribbean (albeit without the hotel prices to match), but if you can tear yourself out to explore some of the smaller islands off the coast, these dazzling clear waters are teeming with marine life. Philippine Airlines flies direct between Manila and Cebu, and via Caticlan for connections to Boracay. Prices vary, but you’ll pay about Dhs200 each way.
Need to know
Etihad flies direct from Abu Dhabi to Manila, with prices starting at Dhs2,795 return (inc tax). Philippine Airlines flies from Manila to Cebu daily, from Dhs346 return (inc tax).
Where to stay
Situated a little out of town, there are plenty of facilities here (though it may be too resorty for some). The spotless rooms have villa-like privacy and the pool is vast. Lagoon-side rooms start at Dhs697. Call +63 32 340 5900 or see plantationbay.com.