Philippines Part 1 – Day 1-3

By Koy Severino

The first thing that hits you when you step through the sliding glass door and out of Ninoy Aquino International Airport is the distinctive smell of Manila – a pungent cocktail of diesel exhaust, burning trash, and your own sweat in the muggy tropical urban heat. Many characterize it as an unpleasant odor. But to me, it is the sweet unmistakable scent of home, carrying with it a rush of childhood memories…


Throughout this journey, I can’t help but imagine the rest of our team alongside me and  their various reactions to the sights they witness. I keep saying things in my head that I would be saying to them at different points along the way. I feel this constant longing for their company, to see their excitement refreshing my own view of things that I may have come to take for granted, to experience old things anew.

Marcel Proust said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

For the past two years, the Hyde Park GOweek Philippines Team has accompanied me on this voyage of transformation, seeing a familiar world through fresh eyes, seeking and finding Christ among the persecuted. This year, I embark on this voyage alone, but with our team in my heart and constantly on my mind…

Austin’s Pennybacker Bridge (above), and San Francisco’s Mateo-Hayward Bridge (below) and Bay Bridge (bottom), as seen from our flight to SFO International Airport


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Ready to board our flight from San Francisco to Taipei…

If the team were with me on this journey, then that means circumstances around the world would be vastly different, and our EVA Airways flight from San Francisco to Taipei, Taiwan would not be half-empty but packed as usual, the flight attendants would not be required to don facemasks and sanitary gloves, wiping down the restroom with alcohol every time someone uses it. I and a majority of the other passengers would not have to wear facemasks all through the flights to Taipei and Manila and the transfer in between. (I was a little concerned the Alaska Airlines crew between Austin and San Francisco were not taking similar precautions)…

Transiting through Taiwan’s Taoyuan International Airport, I would explain to the team all of the reasons why this is one of my favorite airports in the world. First and foremost, Taoyuan International has a beautiful little Christian prayer room, an oasis of tranquility in one of the busiest hubs on the planet. Once we get through the security area, we would have time to swing by the Christian Prayer Room to give thanks.

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Taoyuan International Airport’s Christian Prayer Room offers a quiet meditative space with a great view of one of the world’s busiest runways…

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Each boarding gate at Taoyuan is designed with a different theme. Gate C3 is popular among Hyde Park GOweek teams for obvious reasons –

The 2018 GOweek Philippines Team at Gate C3.
The 2020 GOweek Philippines Team’s portrait in Taoyuan would have looked something like this.

For Koy’s review of Taoyuan International Airport, click here – The Adventures of Kokoy – LAX to Taoyuan

There are many choices at Taoyuan International Airport’s food court. One of the favorites of Hyde Park GOweek teams has been the dumplings. They come with pork, shrimp or veggie. With a plate of edamame and a complementary bowl of egg drop soup, this definitely hits the spot after a 13-hour flight. One order is usually shared by two or more team members.

Before we get to the airport food court, relatively excellent as far as airport food courts go, I orient the team to the transiting procedures for your return journey without me, since I will be staying in the Philippines through spring break. It is a cinch at Taoyuan where there are plenty of English signs pointing you towards the international transfer line. Once through security, find your gate in the numerous departure LCD displays which are updated regularly. Walk briskly, and you can get to your gate in well under an hour.

Before boarding our connection, I advise the team that those among you sitting in window seats will have a spectacular daytime view of the Philippine archipelago as we approach the sprawling megalopolis of Manila…

IMG_3620IMG_2210IMG_3624IMG_3039IMG_6425Unlike most urban airports located some distance away from the city, Ninoy Aquino International Airport is smack dab inside Manila. Once our hotel shuttle bus pulls out of the airport gate, we are in the thick of Manila’s notorious traffic. It’s good that we arrive on a Sunday when traffic is relatively light, but the route to Hotel Jen nonetheless offers a glimpse of daily life in one of the world’s most crowded capitals. I point out some of the more interesting sights along the 20-minute ride.

As our shuttle turns north on the famous Roxas Boulevard, we pass one of my favorite churches, the National Shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, or popularly known as Baclaran Church. Built in a Romanesque architectural style, an elaborate altar was donated in 1932 by a devotee family to house the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help brought to the Philippines by Redemptorist priests in 1906. Baclaran Church survived the ravages of World War II, even as Japanese forces interned the priests and dispersed the community. After liberation, the icon was recovered from a prison used by the Japanese invaders to store art pieces stolen from Filipino homes. In 1948, the rector introduced what is now the most attended weekly Novena in the world when an estimated 100,000 flock onto the grounds to pray together every Wednesday, which has become known as “Baclaran Day.” On the first Wednesday of each month, the crowd swells to about 120,000, with yet larger numbers on Ash Wednesday. Even with its floor area of over 54,000 square feet, crowds spill out into the courtyard during regular Sunday Masses. Baclaran Church has never closed its doors, and people come to pray at all hours of the day, late into the night and even in the wee hours of the morning.

One of the sights we pass on the way to the hotel from the airport is Baclaran Church, one of my favorites in the world because of its advocacy work among the poor…

Espousing the Redemptorist mission to uplift the poor, the Baclaran Church mission offers numerous services for the economically disadvantaged, including a Crisis Intervention Center to meet emergency needs; a Justice, Peace & Integrity of Creation office which campaigns to build awareness of such issues as human rights, ecology, disaster preparation, and defense of indigenous people; the Sarnelli Center for Street Children which offers temporary shelter, skills and livelihood training, education, and family reunification to the indigent; an educational assistance program to help poor students attend college; and a medical and dental facility for primary health care. Most recently, the southern wall of the grounds has been transformed into an extensive mosaic intricately pieced together by teams of local artisans. With small fragments of colored ceramic, the mosaic outlines the history of the Filipino people, and exhibits the ancient Baybayin alphabet whose evolution was interrupted and virtually extinguished by Spanish conquest. A solemn monument stands in the southwest corner of the grounds dedicated to the Desaparecidos (“the Disappeared”), individuals who have involuntarily gone missing since as far back as 1971, whether at the hands of government authorities or otherwise, hundreds of victims’ names etched in a stone memorial, a list that tragically continues to grow.

To view Koy’s photos of Baclaran Church, click Meditations Around the World – A Lifelong Pilgrimage Praying and Photographing Churches – National Shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, Pasay City

This photo shows just the tip of the iceberg of the Baclaran market area, one of three huge outdoor shopping districts in Metro Manila.

The market area next to Baclaran Church is one of three huge outdoor shopping districts in the metropolitan area. You can get just about anything at Baclaran market. I have gone there to shop for shoes and clothes, groceries, toys, jerseys for the Hyde Park Middle School soccer team, I have had numerous pants altered or repaired there, all at knockoff black market prices.

I would also point out San Juan de Dios Hospital where I used to take my mom for her checkups. Founded in 1578 by Franciscan missionaries, San Juan de Dios is the oldest hospital in the Philippines. Now run by the Daughters of Charity order of nuns, the non-profit San Juan de Dios Educational Foundation includes both the hospital and a medical school producing graduates in nursing, medical technology, physical therapy, and hospital management. For more photos, click San Juan de Dios Hospital Chapel.

We also see on this route the Japanese embassy and the United States embassy annex for consular affairs, both compounds heavily fortified behind high concrete walls and barbed wire. Further along is the Department of Foreign Affairs building where my late father‘s office used to be, and whose library now contains his numerous books on Southeast Asian diplomacy and international cooperation. The observant Hyde Park students would most likely comment on the many Jollibee‘s they see during our drive, the most popular fast-food hamburger chain in the Philippines, which holds the dubious distinction of being the only country in the world where McDonald’s comes in second place in the fast-food hamburger sales race, outsold only by Jollibee.

At sunrise on Saturday mornings, the CCP driveway becomes an exercise track teeming with joggers. I always mention this to the Hyde Park team in case anyone wants to plan a run for the Saturday after we get back from our service mission in Aklan.

As our shuttle bus pulls into the Hotel Jen driveway, I point to the Cultural Center of the Philippines across the main thoroughfare. Constructed in the 1970’s under the Marcos dictatorship, the CCP was intended to become one of the architectural showpieces of Manila. To this day, it continues to feature a diverse variety of programming, from touring Broadway musicals to black box theatrical productions, cutting-edge independent film festivals and exhibits of experimental art. Permanent installations by some of the most world-renowned Filipino painters hang below extravagant chandeliers in the spacious lobby. On opening nights, the front fountain would be gushing in all its spectacular glory.

After checking into rooms and freshening up, the team meets back down in the Hotel Jen lobby lounge, and I give my spiel before we embark on our afternoon excursion:

“Alright people, we are about to step out into the city. The most dangerous thing you are going to do on this whole trip is cross the street in Manila, where traffic is mostly chaotic. Don’t assume that just because the light is red, all vehicles will stop. Just because there are lane markers, that doesn’t mean there won’t be vehicles going in the opposite direction. There will be all kinds of vehicles coming and going in all directions. So, when we cross the street, we have to check all directions, not just left and right.

“When we step out the door of the hotel, we will turn right and walk towards the intersection. At one point, the sidewalk will become very narrow and we will have to get in single file. Default as far to your right as you can because you do not want to get sideswiped by a motorcycle passing on your left. When we get to the intersection, which happens to be one of the city’s busiest, we will cross to the other side when it is clear, and then turn right. We will cross again at the next intersection. That is where we will catch the jeepney.

“It is a Sunday, so we shouldn’t have to wait long for an empty or nearly empty jeepney to come along, so we should all fit in one jeepney. I will get on the jeepney first and you follow my lead. Once we are in the jeepney, passengers pay directly to the driver, who will reach one hand back to receive the payment while continuing to drive with his other hand. I will take care of our team’s payment. However, if there are other passengers in the jeepney besides us, and they are sitting too far back to reach, the system is to pass their payment forward from hand to hand to the driver. Same goes with the change – pass it back. I am telling you this so that you can be prepared to perform this task if needed. When we arrive at Malate Church, I will get off the jeepney first and everyone follows.

“Are you ready? I will be at the front, Mrs. Messer you take the middle, Mr. Messer you take the rear. Any questions? Let’s go check out Manila!”

This is the intersection of Roxas Boulevard and Ocampo Street on a typical day. Hyde Park GOweek Philippines Teams have successfully negotiated one of the city’s busiest intersections on their first outing in Manila. (Photo is taken from Koy’s 11th floor condo in Legaspi Tower.)
Koy’s condo unit is on the 11th floor of Legaspi Towers.

On our walk to the jeepney stop, we pass Legaspi Towers, where my family has owned condominium units for about ten years now. Legaspi Towers is the embodiment of the cliche “they don’t build them like this any more.” Constructed in the 1970’s with a heavy art deco influence, the building itself can be a museum piece, with a cavernous lobby showcasing original works by Filipino artists, marble staircase, intricately laid brick floors and glass elevators looking out to the bay, the Towers are destined to be an historical landmark. Monitored 24 hours by friendly and helpful security staff always greeting you with a smile at every entrance, the bottom four floors house businesses, including a hair salon, dental clinic, convenience store, money changer, and travel agent. A swimming pool on the fourth floor terrace overlooks Roxas Boulevard and the CCP. Every first Friday of the month, the lobby is converted into a chapel where Mass is celebrated at noon for the workers in the building and residents.

20170720_14242120170720_142402For those who are thirsty, we can stop at the fresh coconut juice vendor on the corner in front of Legaspi Towers before we cross Ocampo Street.

While the jeepney system is one of the most important components in the Philippine economy, providing millions of laborers, students, merchants, shoppers, and farmers cheap transportation daily, jeepney drivers are also among the most persecuted classes in Philippine society, earning little in a grueling job. Many jeepneys are independently owned small business operations, and many drivers do not actually own the jeepneys, but drive them for the owner. One can see jeepneys parked in jeepney bays during their off hours, the driver asleep inside it often with his whole family, small kids on cardboard mats on the floorboard or on the passenger benches.

The jeepney is idiosyncratic to Philippine society and culture. The original jeepneys were army jeeps left by the U.S. military after World War II, modified into a mass transit public utility vehicle to accommodate large numbers of passengers. Since the 1950’s, jeepneys have been manufactured domestically by Filipino companies such as Sarao Motors. Each jeepney is uniquely designed, many flamboyantly with bright colors and plenty of ornaments. There are no two jeepneys exactly alike. It is a form of utilitarian art car predating Houston’s art car culture by a good three decades.

Below are a few photos of jeepneys I have shot over the years:

Standard jeepney fare is nine pesos (about 18 US cents). Though the jeepney ride is only about five minutes to Malate Church, the experience gives our team a brief taste of how common people get around everyday. The jeepney stops anywhere along the route to pick up or drop off passengers, as long as you give the driver enough notice.

A monument stands in the Malate Church courtyard to innocent lives who perished in World War II, including five priests refusing to abandon their parishioners. The memorial calls on the Church to be the voice of the oppressed.

Popularly known as Malate Church (pronounced “mah-lah-tay”), Nuestra Señora de los Remedios (Our Lady of Remedies) was originally built by Spanish Augustinian missionaries in 1588, and is the oldest church in the country. The edifice has gone through several restorations and major repairs over the centuries after surviving numerous earthquakes, countless typhoons and four wars, even used by British forces as a base during their brief capture of Manila to launch attacks on the Spanish fort of Intramuros in 1762. The original statue of the Virgin Mary brought from Spain in 1624 still presides over the congregation from the altar today. More than 400 years since its erection on the shores of Manila Bay, Mass can still be heard every Sunday morning every hour on the hour from 6:00 on, one of the few places on the planet where you can hear an Irish priest deliver an entire Mass in the Filipino language of Tagalog with an Irish accent – including the homily! The Malate Church choir is comprised of young elementary and high school children, directed by an organist playing a vintage Yamaha two-tiered electric organ with push-button programmed drums, and bass pedals at the feet, wildly popular in the 1970’s, the kind my dad used to play Bach and Mozart pieces on in our living room and on which I took lessons and composed songs when I was 11 years old. Playing a wide range of worship material in three different languages (English, Tagalog and Latin), some written by such Pinoy pop stars as Ryan Cayabyab, the melodies carried by children’s voices float beautifully around the high domed ceiling, wafting endlessly out the open stained glass windows, through the surrounding trees and weaving into the incessant noise of Manila traffic. View Koy’s photo project here – Malate Church

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A great safe bet at The Aristocrat is the boneless chicken barbecue with java rice and a side of their signature pickled atsara. My mouth is watering as I write this caption.

After a prayer of thanks, I would lead the team to dinner at The Aristocrat restaurant next door, considered by many a food connoisseur to be one of the best in the country. The original Aristocrat was a humble single mobile food car in 1940 and grew to a landmark establishment that has witnessed the passing of Philippine history on Roxas Boulevard – marching prisoners of war during World War II, independence day parades, presidential inauguration caravans, papal processions, and national hero funerals (the most recent of which was Cory Aquino’s in 2009) – just to name a few. Politicians, movie stars, Supreme Court judges and television journalists are often seen among the regular customers to savor The Aristocrat’s exemplary dishes of Philippine traditional cuisine, a menu developed since the pre-War era by late founder Aling Asyang. My personal favorite is the crispy pata – crunchy-skinned deep-fried pork leg in conjunction with The Aristocrat’s own famous in-house pickled atsara.

The 2019 GOweek Philippines Team in Rajah Sulayman Park after dinner at The Aristocrat…

After dinner, we can check out the monument and fountain at Rajah Sulayman Park facing The Aristocrat. Rajah Sulayman was the leader of Maynila, a state that had already been in existence long before the Spanish colonizers arrived in the islands. Many Filipinos are little aware of our own nation’s history prior to the colonial period. Many school history books make it sound like there was nothing here prior to Magellan‘s arrival. In fact, the islands were home to numerous civilizations thriving with their own languages, socio-political and judicial systems, and engaged in commercial trade with other countries.

One of the most photographed sunsets in Asia is over Manila Bay, a blazing sphere sinking peacefully into the ocean, the gentle slopes of Corregidor Island and Bataan peninsula in the foreground – a scene that can only be otherwise conjured in the movies. Along the seawall of Manila Bay, it is a daily spectacle.

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The 2018 GOweek Philippines Team (top left), the 2019 GOweek Philippines Team (top right) on our first Manila sunsets. Above would have been our 2020 GOweek Philippines Team’s sunset. 
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The Manila Yacht Club parking lot at sunset…

After dinner, our team would stroll along the baywalk back towards Hotel Jen, past the Manila Yacht Club entrance and Philippine Navy Headquarters. It would have been a very relaxing walk, also frequented by tourists, joggers, cyclists, and kids playing games, a good brief introduction to the Philippines.

Before proceeding to dessert, we would have stopped at the Philippine Navy Headquarters to pose with a vintage anti-aircraft gun on exhibit outside the gate…

If I had my way, we would then turn through the ASEAN Garden park to Harbour Square for a dip cone at Jollibee, simple but heavenly, one of my favorites for under P20 each, a perfect dessert to cap off our first Manila evening before bedtime.

Our second day in the Philippines would begin very early indeed, and promises to be quite eventful…

All photos by Koy.

COMING NEXT –                                        GOweek Philippines Mission 2020  by Koy Severino, Day 4-6: Serving in Malay and Boracay