Smokey Tours are More Than Just Tours
For someone who is not so curious about Manila, simply staring at photographs or looking out of the bus window during tours may already suffice–but that isn’t the case for someone who has always loved this city and has always wanted to get to know more about it and the lives of the people inhabiting it. In fact, simply walking its streets won’t be enough to have a clearer understanding of it right now.
It was past nine in the morning on a Sunday, yet instead of just staying at home and spending hours on sleep, we braved to go to the Carriedo Station of LRT1. As soon as we exited the station, we were greeted by tons of vendors, reciting their usual rituals of “bili na po kayo” and “tapat na po yan“. Their goods? Actually, there were a lot. We were even surprised to have seen some items we had never thought were there before.
As planned, we went in front of Mister Donut near the entrance of Isetann. Ate Nympha was already there, wearing a black shirt with a Smokey Tours logo and an ID. She was our assigned tour guide that day and she was our ticket to learning more about the city we had only been reading about in poems, essays, and short stories.
Before we started walking, Ate Nympha introduced Smokey Tours to us first. Then, we learned that it organized different kinds of tours for groups, whether big or small. All the money it earns from its tours are donated to the Bahay at Yaman ni San Martin de Porres, which helps street children. We were amazed by the fact that it all simply began when Smokey Tours‘ founder Juliette Kwee organized a photo walk for their present benefactor way back in 2011. Then, eventually, it evolved into what it is now.
Apart from these bits of information, she also gave us some practical advice on how to ensure safety when walking along some streets in Manila. Then, we were ready to go. We were ready to experience the Market Tour, one of the four tours being offered by Smokey Tours. They also offer the Smokey Mountain Tour, Bicycle Tour, and Cockfighting Tour.
According to Karl Marx, economy is the base of every society. Its superstructure composed of political system and culture, on the other hand, moves according to the condition of the base. This is the reason why history depends so much on economy–whatever happens in the mode of the production and all other things related to a society’s economy have a certain impact on the politics and culture in the area. Following this train of thought, it is then valid to say that to know more about a certain place, one has to take a look at its marketplace.
Our first stop that day was Quiapo Church, which, apart from providing home to the famous Black Nazarene, has also been known for the different goods that are sold within its vicinity. Sure, when speaking of Quiapo, herbal medicines would always be in the list. Often attributed to Chinese, herbal medicines have a classic part of the Filipino culture. These herbal medicines are renowned for their effectiveness and guarantee of safety since they are all natural. Nowadays, despite the availability of more modern medical practices, a lot of people from the Metro still rely on these herbal medicines. Headache? Stomach ache? Whatever it is, there’s a plant you can use to make yourself feel better.
Among the plants we saw there were guyabano leaves which, according to the vendor, could be used to cleanse one’s body and get rid of toxins, like those found in urinary track infections. There were also roots of unfamiliar plants which were also said to be useful in curing some ailments.
Superstitious beliefs are also among the things Filipinos believe in. Despite the fact that majority of the Filipinos are Christians, Roman Catholics in particular, there is still a large chunk of the Filipino Population who are still fans of these superstitions. This, we realized as we continued surveying the things we could buy within the vicinity of the Quiapo Church. We saw some substances used for incense, which were said to be effective in driving bad spirits away. Candles could also be found there, and they came in different colors. The catch was, each color stood for something. Some candles even came with small pieces of paper with some prayers printed on them.
Who would forget about fortune tellers in Quiapo? No one, I think. In fact, according to Ate Nympha, some of her tourists, including foreigners, would request to linger in the area a bit longer so they could try those services.
And of course, we could never miss the star in Quiapo Church–no other than the Black Nazarene. That morning, it was displayed outside the church, under a tent set-up by the Diocese. When we got close to it, we found out that there were lots of flowers stationed at the foot of the image. According to Ate Nympha, those flowers actually had owners. They were just placed there to for blessing and at the end of the day, they would be retrieved. Soon, those flowers would be used as medicines.
Near the image, there were also people selling handkerchiefs with the face of Nazareno on them. Some of them even included prayers, which were important to every devotee.
After surveying all the things we could see near the church, we finally walked to going back to Carriedo until we reached the busy street, crowded with both churchgoers and merchants taking advantage of the presence of potential customers. As we continued walking, we were amazed by the fact that everything one would need was already there on that street. Fruits, vegetables, seafood, meat, clothes, plastic wares, toys, and a lot more–they were all there.
Next, we headed to the Muslim town, which was located on the other side of Quiapo. Before we reached the place, though, we passed by several shops selling different kinds of Philippine-made souvenirs. These included wind chimes, jewellery boxes, key chains, lamps, purses, and many more. We discovered, too, that these were a lot more affordable as compared to the ones being sold at malls.
The arch which marked the entrance to the Muslim Town seemed like a portal to another world. In no time, we could already tell the difference: it was way more peaceful there. All of a sudden, we were transported into a different world—a world where peace was simply inherent. And to be honest, inside that community, we felt safer. No wonder, we were more relaxed as we explored the community.
It was an eye-opening experience, indeed, to penetrate such a place; not because our Muslim brothers and sisters close their doors for us Christians but because it is usually us who do not pay attention. In fact, I felt really ashamed after having realized of how little I did know about Islam in the Philippines.
One proof that would support this was the fact that my jaw dropped in awe for almost everything we discovered there: beautiful dresses and stylish hijabs, CDs of Islamic songs, large smoked fishes which came all the way from Mindanao, and of course, The Golden Mosque.
The fascination intensified as we were given a chance to interact with some of our Muslim brothers and have an intercultural dialogue with them. During the dialogue, we were able to learn a lot of things about Islam—from the meaning of the word Islam itself down to some specific practices that Muslims observe. It was through that meaningful conversation that I finally understand what Islam is and now I can say that this understanding is so much better than what history books had taught me when I was still in school. Moral lesson: just open your mind and you will understand things even better.
After the meaningful visit to the Muslim community, we walked again until we reached Bahay Nakpil Bautista, one of the oldest houses in Manila. From the looks of it alone, we could already sense how old it was. According to Ate Nympha, inside that house were several things used by Katipuneros during their days. Fortunately, those things were taken care of that they were able to last until that moment.
After learning more about the Catholic and the Muslim side of Manila, finally, the time has come for us to learn more about the Chinese face of it. Our next stop, undoubtedly, was Chinatown.
Chinatown, particularly Ongpin St., according to Ate Nympha, started as a place of business and trade at the Heart of Manila. Yet, it has become more that just that. Now, it was not just about business; it also displayed kind of culture that was unique in its own.
That is why, when you walk along Ongpin, you would definitely realize that besides the tangible things or the actual products that these people are selling, they are also offering a kind of experience that is one of its kind. This made me realize the truth that in every bite of the tender and flavorful siopao, sold for only P17, I was already having a taste of a certain kind of experience that was unique only to that place with that kind of culture. It was such, as all these products coming from these places are capable of telling endless stories about the community they are a part of.
From Ongpin St., we walked again going to Escolta, which soon led us back to Carriedo, the end point of the tour. When we reached the finish line, we realized that it was already past twelve and our tour actually lasted for more than three hours. We were tired, of course, considering the distance we travelled by foot and the heat brought by the sun. Yet, we did not bother.
What mattered the most that time, instead, was the fact that through that walking tour, I was able to know more about the city I have always been curious about. I have seen the different faces of it; I learned more things about its people; and I got a closer look to the different factors and forces interacting with one another within such a space, producing some kind of a collage. This collage, no matter how confusing or chaotic at times, is still full of beauty. It is a masterpiece. Manila is.
Special thanks to Eboy Alamodin for accompanying me in this tour and for lending me his photographs.
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