A Different Side of Quiapo You Might Not Have Seen Before

A visit to Manila’s old downtown, Quiapo, can be quite an adventure. Here is where chaotic crossovers, contrasts, cheap bargain finds and cut-price chows come together. Despite its known notoriety and urban jungle, it’s no wonder why it seems to be a favorite shopping and food destination among travelers.
Have you seen the different side of Quiapo, though? I bet that once you’re in this area, you might wonder if you’re still in Manila or if you’re suddenly somewhere in Mindanao.
This is what I felt during and even after the cultural narrative and immersive tour of Meaningful Travels PH. I felt like I was back in my hometown in Zamboanga city. The architecture, the food, the people, the atmosphere: all of these things resembled those of my city, which is as diverse as downtown Quiapo and which brought back nostalgic memories.
In Plaza Miranda, where most of the touristic activities take place, stands the Basilica of Black Nazarene, simply known as Quiapo Church, which Quiapo itself is synonymous to. It’s interesting to learn that on the opposite side of Quezon Bridge lies another religious landmark, the purportedly biggest mosque in Manila: the Manila Golden Mosque. This is what I meant when I say Quiapo makes me think of it as a little Zamboanga. These two large faiths coexisting with one another is just like in Zamboanga City,  where you can also find a famed Catholic site standing side-by-side with one of the largest mosques in the region.
 Ih had never been on an organized Quiapo tour  before – be it a walking historical, educational, foodie or architectural one – mostly because I had never looked at Quiapo as a touristic place per se . I always visit this bustling district for other reasons, such as buying cameras along Hidalgo street, praying in Quiapo Church, haggling for practical items, and enjoying its food. It never occured to me to reserve a Quiapo tour of any kind. I was glad that I did, though, since the learning experience proved to be incomparable.
The half-day tour  was a well-rounded one covering various topics and elements of Muslim culture. It’s rich in information for those unfamiliar with the Muslim community and who are open to understand our misunderstood Muslim brothers without having to leave Manila. I also found it to be an excellent way to brush up on my knowledge of the Islamic tradition and get a helpful quick course before taking a trip to Mindanao or any Muslim country.
Even for someone like myself, who lived with Muslims for decades in Zamboanga City, I was still full of curiosity. I was grateful that this tour served as an avenue to clarify any doubts or questions that one might have about our Muslim friends, classmates, and neighbors.
The immersive tour officially starts with an Arabic type of breakfast at the Arab Asian Cafe. While trying the sweet paratha and kuboos and teh tarik (pulled tea); Ann Marie Cunanan, the founder of Meaningful Travels PH, introduced us all and talked about the inception of Meaningful Travels.
Meaningful Travels PH is more than a travel company that believes in the power of travel to do good towards oneself and towards different people and places. Their travels do not just cover sightseeing, but also immersive cultural experiences and giving back activities to achieve a fuller and richer experience. True to their name, traveling becomes meaningful when you make real connections with local people, learn about their unique cultures, and immerse yourself in their communities more than the mandatory photos.
Salaam radio host Nords Maguindanao zealously shared the timeline of Muslim communities from precolonial Philippines, where it was still a Muslim kingdom, until the present time. You’ll be surprised to hear stories that were never written in Philippine history books.
After sharing a little bit about Philippine Muslim history, Sharia lawyer Amanah Lao  introduced us to the Islamic  religious law called Sharia law, its relation to their views in marriage and other religious practices, and  how this law differs from the National Law. She also taught us some Arabic words that are useful when interacting with the kids in Madrassa, an Arabic word that refers to school.
Before entering the Golden Mosque (called as such after its dome’s golden color), the tour coordinators led us to a hijab (headscarf) boutique where female participants could choose from a wide range of hijab colors and designs. The shop attendants will be glad to assist you in putting up the hijab and style it as you like it. You can still haggle when you purchase some that you can use for the tour because it is obligatory for women to completely cover their heads before entering a mosque. Tour trainee Johairah also made us understand the rationale behind Muslim women’s clothing.
Although there are other mosques scattered around Metro Manila, Manila Golden Mosque (Masjid Al-Dahab)  is considered to be the biggest Islam house of worship; it can accommodate around 22,000 worshippers. It was built in 1976 under  the supervision of former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos for the visit of Libya’s President Muammar al- Gaddafi. Though the visitation was subsequently cancelled, the masjid continues to serve Manila’s Muslim community.
Muslims and non Muslims alike are allowed to enter the mosque as long as the proper dress code is observed, and nails are not manicured or painted. It is not also permissible for women to enter the masjid if they have their period. The mosque may not be the most impressive mosque that I have been to, but it is the first time I got to know the details behind the elaborate curvy, leaf and  vine motifs contrasting with the geometric shapes and patterns carved around its walls. According to Nord, it is a combination of Maranao and Maguindanaon arts. Its prominent dome and multitudes of columns are patterned after Middle Eastern structures.

After the narrative and story-telling, you’ll get to experience what a madrassa is like, where the Muslim children study the Quo-ran. This is what makes the tour unique and more meaningful as you get to talk to adorable Muslim kids and understand them more.

 You’ll see the glow in their eyes when you start talking to them, as well as see their excitement when they eagerly accept art materials, notebooks and pencils presented to them. Most of the participants of the said tour are also teachers, so it was natural for them to teach these kids in the most fun way possible. You’ll be surprised by how creative and deep the expression of these kids can be through their writing and drawing.In line with International Women’s Day, they were asked about the most important women in their lives. One kid in particular drew a sun and a tree with the latter representing him as the end receiver of his mom’s love. You’ll definitely be touched by these kids during the immersion part of this cultural excursion.

Our next stop was Halal market, where you can find Halal ingredients, spices, and condiments, as well as smoked tuna and other Muslim delicacies. They also sell spicy noodles (Maggi curry and mie goreng) which quickly reminded me of my town’s own barter trade center where imported products from Malaysia and Indonesia are sold.

Here, you’ll get a glimpse of the spicy Maranao cuisine. One of their cultivated spices, palapa as it is locally called, is a common condiment. You’ll also notice the ample display of scallion bulbs, which they like to use in their cooking.

After the Maranaon cuisine presentation through their market, you’ll get to sample some of them. Anne and the other tour facilitators brought us to a Halal restaurant to try out some Maranaon foods. Though it was mixed with other Philippine dishes, you will taste its Maranaon flavor with the help of their spices. Their desserts include biyaki , cassava, and corn steamed in banana leaves.
Overall, we got to learn a lot of things about Muslim faith and culture, its people, language and their way of life. For visitors who never had contact with Muslims, the trip is sure to be an eye-opening experience. I felt like I was transported to Zamboanga City  as the entire scene and ambiance from the food to its architecture are really very Mindanao.
This was officially my first immersion tour and I think it will be the start fro me to travel in a more meaningful way from now on. Special thanks to Meaningful Travels PH for this experience.

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