Saturday, August 28, 2010

Swept Away by the Sights of Manila Ocean Park

Are you intrigued by the life aquatic? Do you know what goes on down there in the unplumbed depths of the ocean? Are you looking forward to an intimate encounter with arapaimas, gouramis, electric eels, crabs, clownfish, barracudas, stingrays, sharks  and other exotic marine species found only in Philippine seas?
Well, here’s something fishy that’s gonna blow your mind, if you haven’t seen or heard about it yet. I’m referring to none other than the Manila Ocean Park (MOP), the Philippines’ first state-of-the-art living museum of the underwater world, located within a  gigantic complex right at the back of the Quirino Grandstand near Rizal Park.

Before flying home, I spent a few hours sweeping the secrets of the deep blue sea which are displayed at MOP. Since he’s been there on countless occasions, Juju, my host and buddy, just drove me to the place and waited patiently at one of the ocean park’s restaurants. And what did I discover during my solo under-the-sea exploration? What else, but a myriad of deep mysteries which have swept me off my feet!

In that brief visit, I got to witness firsthand the rarely seen life at the bottom of the ocean unfold before my eyes through its oceanarium, which features about 20,000 exotic marine creatures of about 300 species. Around 80 percent of these are said to be endemic or found only in Philippine waters. 

Inside the ocean park, I also had the chance to gad around the first marine-themed mall in the country, harboring some 30 different shops and 25 restaurants where visitors can enjoy gazing at Manila's world-famous sunset, and even dine al fresco. Recently, MOP opened its four-star boutique hotel named H20 Manila, which has something like 140 rooms.

But it’s the oceanarium that really took my breath away. Divided into seven unique underwater kingdoms or realms proudly bearing Filipino names, it showcases the diverse and enchanting habitats of the marine world. Stepping into each of these realms, I got ecstatic exploring the unchartered corners of the deep, surrounded by a profusion of awesome sea creatures—without getting myself soaked at all! 

Together with a motley crowd, I began my underwater eco-adventure by treading into a lush “rainforest” where water from an artificial waterfalls cascades into eight various water tanks, a simulation of the freshwater flow that leads to the open sea.

Known as Agos (Flow), this habitat underscores the vital link between land and sea. Each of the tanks there contains rare species of freshwater fish. Time seemed to stand still as I gazed at the exotic array of arapaimas (said to be the world’s largest freshwater fish), gouramis, arowanas, lungfish, albino cat fish, and other sea creatures like starfishes, sea cucumbers, hermit crabs, fire eels and bamboo sharks. 

Two of the water tanks there are filled with fishes thriving in brackish waters such as target fish, archerfish, silver moony (fingerfish), cichlids, etc. Meanwhile, the rocky shoreline is represented by the Dalampasigan (Seashore) pool where visitors can touch some of the creatures on display, particularly the live starfishes which children had a great time caressing. 

After Agos, I stepped into a dark place where the aquariums were built into the walls. Each of them had lighted plates describing the swimmers inside the glass-encased containers. This colorful yet intriguing realm of the marine world is called Bahura (Coral Reef) where sightseers can find common as well as rare species of fish and other coral reef inhabitants as displayed in 48 different tanks.

For a while, I really thought the corals in Bahura are authentic. To my surprise, they’re artificial! Still, I take my hat off to the fellows who fashioned them out of fiberglass. Also, I found one swimmer lurking at the corals inside the glass houses which I’ve been wanting to see up close and personal—who else but Nemo! Geez, the teeny-weeny is truly an eye-catching swimmer just like in the movie. And I’m glad he’s reunited with his clownfish family, at least at the ocean park.

Incidentally, the Philippines happens to be one of the countries that constitute the so-called Coral Triangle, a geographical term referring to the global epicenter of marine biodiversity. Perhaps because of this, there’s a blurb claiming that the country is the center of marine fish biodiversity in the world. Some kind of fish story? Not really. Fact is, there’s a study by American biologists corroborating such claim.

And here’s more: we’re also the home of the most diverse marine ecosystem in the planet! Crab, eel, seahorse, pufferfish, sergeant fish, regal tang fish, damselfish, porcupinefish, rabbitfish, cowfish, lionfish, angelfish, stonefish—name it, our seas teem with it, and most of them are showcased at Bahura 

Still dazed and dazzled by my experience at the coral reefs, I moved on to another realm and discovered the various fauna residing at Laot (Fishing Ground). Bathed in mystery, the eerie darkness that envelops the underwater world is recreated in this almost pitch black habitat. Only the light coming from four floor-to-ceiling aquariums illuminates the entire area.

Inside the gigantic, thick glass houses, I noticed some replicas of shipwrecks, subterranean caves, and other artifacts scattered all over, simulating the natural milieu under the sea. Going around Laot, I was treated to a radiant display of colorful fishes, some of which are sold in local wet markets like the giant groupers we fondly call lapu-lapu. Definitely a sight to behold!

In that poorly lit realm, I had difficulty getting clear snaps. Flash photography is prohibited inside MOP as it disturbs the creatures but some visitors blatantly violated the rule just to get good shots. The fact that no staff of the ocean park called their attention must have emboldened the violators to keep on doing their thing.

From Laot, I segued into the realm of Buhay na Karagatan (The Living Ocean) which provides visitors with a breathtaking extravaganza of the life aquatic. Watching the striking visuals in that part of the oceanarium left me tongue-tied. To say that it’s amazing would be an understatement.

Most of the crowd, young and old alike, gravitated towards this section because it showcases one of MOP’s main attractions —a 25-meter underwater tunnel with 220-degree curved acrylic walls resembling that of Singapore’s Underwater World. Ours, however, is quite short compared to the one at Sentosa which stretches 83 meters and boasts of a travelator that moves visitors around as they gaze at the marine creatures.  

As its name suggests, Buhay na Karagatan teems with color, vibrancy and excitement as schools of multi-colored fishes, sponges, stingrays, and even sharks wander in synchronized movements around and above your head. The few minutes I spent gazing at the mind-boggling richness of the ocean turned out to be both pleasurable and therapeutic. It’s probably the closest thing that we humans can get to hang around with such a great array of swimmers without getting ourselves wet.

Still mesmerized by the diversity of wonders I saw at the living ocean, I continued with my eco-journey and took the plunge into the mysterious kingdom known as Ang Kalaliman (The Deep). There, I had a close encounter with one of the sleekest residents of that part of the ocean — the barracuda. Known as the “tiger of the sea”, it’s a cold-blooded killer whose fierce-looking stance and dagger-like teeth make it one of the most dreaded inhabitants of the deep.

From Ang Kalaliman, I went to the kingdom of Pagi (Stingrays). There, I was struck with wonder as different species of rays swam above me while I stood beneath their overhang tank. Said to be distant relatives of sharks, rays are docile creatures, rarely inflicting serious harm on humans. If provoked, however, they can be dangerous, swinging their tails with enough force to tear flesh and, at the same time, unleash venom. 

Pinoy superstition has it that a stingray’s tail called buntot pagi can be used to ward off ghosts, ghouls, witches and other malevolent creatures of the night. It’s a lethal weapon because the toxin lingers even as the tail itself has dried. This makes buntot pagi a prized possession that you can use against your enemies because of the excruciating pain it can inflict on them. Hmmm…maybe I should keep one tail…just in case. LOL!

After spending some bedazzling moments with the rays, I reached the realm of their cousins: Pating (Shark). No oceanarium, I supposed, would be complete without these renowned predators of the deep. The ones I saw inside the tank, however, are still little. Viewed from behind the acrylic glass house, they seemed harmless and cuddly. But years of reading Peter Benchley and company’s paperbacks and seeing their film versions have taught me to be wary of sharks, especially the savage man-eating great white one.

Snapping at  the  different  types of sharks—leopard, tiger, sand tiger  and zebra—swimming inside the tank, I wondered where MOP would put them once they mature into giant predators, if they live. Would they release them into Manila Bay and stir pandemonium similar to what the great white shark caused in “Jaws”? Now, that’s one publicity stunt that would surely make great waves for the ocean park! LOL!

Aside from the awe-inspiring views of the underwater world, there are some extras awaiting those who linger at MOP. These include the fish spa and the glass bottom boat ride. At the former, visitors can dip their tired feet into the water where an assortment of doctor fishes will nibble away rough, dead skin cells, bringing back the glow and smoothness of their feet. Meanwhile, the latter treats them to a wonderful view of some sea creatures found in Buhay na Karagatan literally swimming under their feet!  

The ocean park also has a musical show entitled “Mermaids in Manila”, which features lovely mermaids in colorful costumes swimming and spinning with all the sea creatures in an aquarium. Unfortunately, I passed up the chance to enjoy these additional treats but surely, they’re going to be part of my itinerary next time. 

With these numerous spectacles relatively within any tourist’s reach, non-swimmers and non-divers alike can now enjoy the thrill of watching the abundance of marine life in this part of the world, without having to dive into the mysterious depths of the sea. 

By taking the plunge into the ocean park, any visitor also gets to escape the social realities—congestion, crime, curtailment, corruption—that are plaguing the nation’s capital and elsewhere. Sometimes it feels wonderful to be shielded from these and lulled into an imaginary state of bliss…even for an hour or two. :D

Friday, August 20, 2010

Intramuros: Manila’s Invincible Walled City

Old as they are, architectural ruins—buildings, houses, fortresses, churches, monuments and the like—have intrigued me ever since. I guess it must be my fascination with anything classic or vintage that makes me appreciate them. Seeing these ruins not only gives me full access, albeit vicariously, into the life and lifestyles of people in the olden days but also deepens my grasp of Philippine history and culture.  So, if my schedule permits me, I make it a point to see some of the country’s heritage sites whenever I’m within their vicinity. 

Why bother scouring architectural rubble? For one, I’m an incorrigible dabbler of history and the arts who finds an intellectual expedition of that sort an eye-opening experience. Also, ruins remind and make us proud of our national heritage. Poet Abram Joseph Ryan underscored this when he wrote the lines “a land without ruins is a land without memories—a land without memories is a land without history.”

For me, one of most interesting sites worth visiting again and again is Manila’s once-forbidding enclave—the invincible walled city of Intramuros. I regard the place with great affection because it was there where I wrote some important chapters of my graduate school thesis years ago. At that time, it was the ideal hideaway to gather my thoughts and convert them into the written word. I also found it accessible whenever I wanted to seek sanctuary from the hubbub of urban life.

History has it that right after Manila fell into his hands in 1571, Spanish conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legazpi had a fortress built over the ashes of a Muslim settlement along the banks of the Pasig River. Surrounded by impregnable walls and deep moats, the heavily fortified enclave came to be known as Intramuros, which means "within the walls" in Latin.

Geez, there’s something about this once formidable Spanish bastion that seems to beckon me (and probably other people, too) to wander through its crumbling beauty and search into its dark corners for ghosts of the past. So far, I’ve only stumbled upon the historic kind but not the horrific…yet!  LOL!  

In its heyday, the walled city—considered then as Manila itself—served as the epicenter of Spanish colonial rule in the Philippines. Thousands of Spain’s politico-military elite and their families, including the mestizos or those of Hispano-Filipino descent, took up residence within its 64-hectare sprawl. Filipino natives and the Chinese, however, weren’t allowed to live there. 

Fortified with baluartes (bastions), the walled city lies within the heart of the modern-day capital city. Built into the high walls are puertas (gates) with drawbridges providing access to and from the outside world. Within its thick walls, imposing government buildings, stately homes, magnificent churches, convents, monasteries, schools, hospitals and cobbled plazas were constructed.  

For centuries, many of the structures inside Intramuros remained unscathed until they were severely damaged by the Allied bombings—with the exception of San Agustin Church which survived the bombardment—during the bloody Battle of Manila in 1945. The siege, which claimed the lives of over 100,000 men, women and children, proved to be one of the darkest moments in Philippine history. At Plazuela de Santa Isabel, there’s a shrine that honors the innocent lives who perished during that event.

To cap a quick trip to Manila recently, I decided to spend my remaining time in the capital by revisiting Intramuros. I was joined by one of my college chums, Juju, a fellow photography buff and adventure junkie. Armed with a digital camera this time, I was flushed with excitement knowing that I’d finally be able to capture the striking images in the walled city that I’ve seen before in my previous visits.

Our first stop was the awe-inspiring Manila Metropolitan Cathedral. Also known as Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Church, the cathedral was elevated to the rank of minor basilica by virtue of a Papal decree in the early 1980s. Throughout its 400-year history, the church underwent many reconstructions after it was destroyed by natural disasters, bombings and fires. Completed in 1958, the existing structure is the cathedral’s sixth and most recent makeover.

Revisited after so many years, the cathedral dazzled me anew with its classic grandeur owing from a combination of Gothic, Byzantine and Romanesque architectural influences. Bedecked with statues of famous saints sculpted in Roman stone, the main fa├žade remains grandiose and riveting as ever, beckoning people to enter and take a peek at what’s inside it. Since it was a weekend, there were quite a number of camera-toting tourists gravitating towards the church.

As soon as Juju and I got inside, we wasted no time putting our shutters to work. For the next few hours, I had a field day snapping at the plethora of subjects found all around me: exquisite rose windows, cavernous naves, magnificent statues, dazzling chandeliers, striking bas reliefs and a treasure-trove of other interesting riches.

In one section of the church’s right nave, I noticed a small exhibit depicting recent efforts done to restore the old pipe organ, which provides liturgical music for the cathedral’s services. 

Located at the choir loft, the magnificent organ by Pels Organ Makers of Holland is considered one of the largest in the Far East. Last year, the Catholic Church broke its protocol by allowing the remains of former President Corazon Aquino to lie in state inside the historic cathedral, bestowing upon her the honor of being the first laywoman permitted to do so, a privilege reserved only for the Archbishop of Manila. Former President Carlos Garcia was the first layman to be accorded such honor.

A few steps away from the minor basilica is another religious edifice that has held its ground against the ravages of time, wars and natural calamities: San Agustin Church, one of the four Baroque churches in the Philippines that were designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1993. With the first structure completed in 1606, it’s hailed as the “only surviving 16th century edifice in the country” and the oldest church, too.

Having an overdose of “spiritual shots” at the Manila Cathedral, we skipped the church and headed for Plaza San Luis Complex. Located just a stone’s throw away from San Agustin Church, the complex is a cultural-cum-commercial edifice where you can find art galleries, craft shops, restaurants and cafes, a boutique hotel and the Casa Manila Museum. 

I haven’t explored Casa Manila during my previous visits so Juju and I thought it was time to rummage the place. Managed by the government, the “colonial lifestyle” museum gives visitors a diorama of how the ilustrado—the  middle class Filipinos—lived during the 17th to 19th centuries under Spanish rule. Modeled after a house built in 1850, the building’s ground floors are rented out to shopkeepers selling antiques, objets d’ art and souvenir items.  

Before going upstairs, I asked the receptionist if it was okay for us to bring our cameras and take pictures inside the museum. “No, sir, you can’t,” came the curt reply. Dismayed, we still proceeded since we have already bought tickets.

Our chagrin, however, flew out of the window when we saw what’s inside the three-storey museum. At the first floor, we stepped into what was known at the time as entresuelo (which means “between floors”), a part of the house where clients, tenants and other visitors wait before being admitted to the homeowner’s despacho or oficina (office). Moving into the second floor, one of the ushers led us into a very spacious, tastefully decorated sala (living room) where VIPs are entertained.  

We then proceeded to other important areas/rooms of the house such as the oratorio (prayer room) where the family gathers every evening for the angelus, novenas and other similar activities and the cuarto principal (master’s bedroom) which is embellished with wall-to-wall cabinets, marble washstands, dressers with swinging, full-length mirrors and large bed, among others.

The comedor (dining room) and the cucina (dirty kitchen) are also sights to behold with all the vintage porcelain, silver and glassware, equipment and tools displayed there. All told, the treats we saw inside Casa Manila make up what I consider a grand visual spectacle worth reviewing again and again had our shutters been allowed to capture them in pixels. Hmmm…maybe next time.  

While finding a place to eat, we stumbled upon Hotel Intramuros, which is located just beside Casa Manila. There, we had buffet lunch and a quick stroll around the hotel. Afterwards, we proceeded to Fort Santiago, the historical landmark north of the walled city. 

The fort, which was converted into a garrison by the Japanese forces during World War II, houses well-preserved legacies of the Spanish government, an information center for visitors, an antique shop, parks, promenades and picnic areas and a shrine dedicated to the country’s national hero, Dr. Jose Rizal. One of the 18th century adobe buildings inside the fort has also been converted into the Dulaang Raha Sulayman (Rajah Sulayman Theater), an open-air theater where seasonal performances are mounted by one of the country’s leading thespian groups, the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA).

In front of the fort’s main gate is a moat, which once served as the city’s first line of defense against invaders, separated from the promenades and parks by two large pools with water lilies. Inside the fort, I continued snapping at anything I fancied, including the brass footprints on the paved road—footprints showing the path that Rizal had taken from his cell in Fort Santiago to the venue of his execution in Bagumbayan or Luneta (which has been renamed into Rizal Park).
Following his arrest aboard a ship bound for Barcelona, Spain, Rizal was sent back to Manila and incarcerated there. Inside his cell, he composed one of his final notes before his execution, “Mi Ultimo Adios”. Inside the fort, there’s a monument dedicated to the national hero, which we also paid a visit. 

Today, the old barracks where Rizal was once confined has been converted into a shrine in his honor. There, his pictures, paintings, sculptures,  memoirs, and literary works, including a copy of "El Filibusterismo", his second novel, are put on display. 

Inside this shrine is the cell where he was incarcerated. Upon entering it, visitors are greeted by some excerpts from Rizal’s writings that are etched on brass plates. I had goose bumps as I roamed around and took pictures of that small cubicle, which seemed to reek of lingering sadness for someone that the country once had and lost. 

Right after World War II, Intramuros lost much of its grandeur, with many of its structures and shrines falling into various stages of decay. While a number of laws were passed to save Intramuros from further destruction, it took the combined efforts of government bodies and private institutions to restore many portions of its walls, gates and fortifications. 

With much of Manila’s development taking place outside the walled city, the thick walls, cobblestone streets, monuments and centuries-old churches of the fortress have been largely unmarred by the inroads of metropolitan growth. Those that were beyond restoration, however, had to give way to banks, schools, private firms and government buildings that were erected within Intramuros. Some commercial establishments, notably fast food chains, have also sprouted alongside the edifices within the walled city’s university belt.  Meanwhile, the old moats have been filled and converted into a sprawling golf club considered to be the most accessible of all the golf courses in Metro Manila. 

When the Marcoses were ruling the country, the national government, under the aegis of the former first lady, created a special body that spearheaded the massive renovation of Intramuros and other heritage structures in the country. 

With the successive regimes continuing the task of preserving Intramuros, this “city within the city” was successfully transformed into a tourist must-see and is now under the aegis of the Intramuros Administration (which holds office at the Palacio del Gobernador, former residence of the Spanish governor-generals), affording visitors with a glimpse of what Manila was like during the Spanish era. 

All told, I give the invincible walled city five stars for turning me into a historian and a culture vulture overnight and for making one of my occasional trips to Manila another nostalgic journey into the country’s glorious past. :D