I often get asked “WHY do you live in Manila?”. I get it- as a foreigner there’s a perception in others’ eyes that I have the resources to live anywhere I’d like. Taking into account Manila’s pollution, traffic, and corruption, it’s a fair question.
The truth is, I love Manila. I love her history, her quirky, eclectic food scene, her people with their quick smiles and fascinating stories. I love discovering the hidden gems that you’d miss unless you spent time hanging out with the locals and allowing yourself to slip into their world.
My love for Manila in recent years has been stoked by my self-proclaimed “history and culture nerd” friends, Dustin and Noni. Dustin owns Manila For A Day, a no-bullshit tour company that he started after growing tired of telling a “sanitized” version of the Philippines’ history as a government employed tour guide for foreign VIPs. Dustin is the reason I can show up many of my local friends when it comes to history knowledge- I’ve been on multiple tours with Dustin and he’s been the only person I know who could explain the origin of certain elements of Filipino culture to me. Noni is a Manila For A Day guide- or “cultural navigator” and the creator of Manila For A Day’s newest offering, “Colors of Manila”. Colors of Manila brings travelers and locals alike through one of my very favorite areas of Manila- Quiapo.
Quiapo is home to the world’s oldest Chinatown. Once, it was old Manila’s central business district and “downtown” area. Today, it’s still a bustling hub for commerce, but you’ll see streets full of roadside vendors instead of men in suits with briefcases. Everywhere you turn, there’s vibrant color, chaos, and an explosion of life.
There’s also a beautiful cross-section of diversity in Quiapo. Here, one of Manila’s few mosques exists just beside an iconic old Catholic church. You’ll meet hijab-wearing women selling halal food, vendors selling prayer candles, and fortune tellers offering up a dose of mysticism.
You could stroll through this area on your own, taking in all the sensory stimuli and exploring- but if you want to take a deep dive into the neighborhood, go with Noni or Dustin. The trust and relationships that they’ve built within the community make all the difference in creating an experience that feels mutually respectful, unique, and adventurous.
My favorite element of Colors of Manila was getting to know the Muslim community. Any non-Catholic group here in the Philippines is a strong minority, and the Muslim community is almost invisible at times. Under Noni’s guidance, the small group I was with was ushered off the street into a little shop where the proprietress outfitted the women with scarves and skirts- ensuring that we’d be respecting the guidelines of the Golden Mosque as we entered. The mosque itself is beautiful- built in the 1970’s as a gesture of goodwill to a visiting Islamic leader. It’s interesting to see how the tile patterns and architecture are both in line with traditional Islamic motifs and uniquely Filipino.
After visiting the mosque, my group was curious to learn more about the Muslim community, so we chatted with both Noni and an older gentleman who saw our group and wanted to join us about the experience of being Muslim in a Catholic nation. This conversation was had over fresh roti and tea, naturally, in a tiny cafe.
Speaking of roti, let’s talk about food. If you know where to go in Quiapo, you’ll find some of the best hole-in-the-wall eateries in Manila. We sampled everything from fresh fruit to street foods to a delicious halal meat-and-rice concoction that I’ve since completely forgotten the name of. What’s an afternoon of roaming around Manila without a “food trip” built in?
Of course, Colors of Manila is more than just food and community- you’ll learn some solid history, too. The thing is, with Manila For A Day, you never feel like you’re sitting in a classroom, and you never tune out as someone drones on with a list of names and dates. You can imagine what the streets of Quiapo must have looked like in the 1960’s or 70’s as your guide points out what each old building was built or used for back in the day. You’ll glean all sorts of knowledge about the area that you’d never otherwise learn.
Check out Manila For A Day to book your own Colors of Manila tour (or choose another itinerary). It’s well worth your time and attention to see this special segment of the city through an informed and positive lens.