Walls, War and Wonderment

The first week in a new place can be chaotic. Moving is unarguably challenging- breaking in a new home, familiarizing yourself with new culture, deciphering all new surroundings, twelve hour jetlag… and on top of that, starting work the second day after your arrival all scream chaos and absolute exhaustion. Luckily though, many international schools, like ISM, host a comprehensive  “New Teacher Orientation” designed to help their new faculty, flying in from the far corners of the Earth, to adjust and find their footing. During our week of ISM orientation, we were inundating with meetings, presentations, shopping trips, culture lessons, socializing, free food and advice. Though most of this information was exceedingly helpful (despite the fact that as an intern some of it didn’t actually apply to me), I was slightly overwhelmed at the end of the week and in desperate need of a change of scene. Thankfully, in addition to having time to explore the city on our own and catch up on some much needed sleep, the IS HR department set up a couple of afternoon trips around Manila to help us get a taste of the city beyond the walls of Fort Bonifacio.

Cart driver breaking for a nap on the wide streets of Intramuros

One of the trips that HR organized for us was a tour of Fort Santiago and the Saint Augustine Church in Intramuros- the  oldest district of Manila surrounded by defensive walls from the colonial era. For those of you who have skimmed my Assorted Filipino Trivia, or who know a little about Filipino history, you’ll remember that The Philippines were a Spanish colony for over 300 years until purchased by the US in 1898. Despite the fact that modern Manila borrows more from Hollywood than Madrid, visiting the sites and neighborhoods of Intramuros (“within the walls” in Spanish) it’s almost possible to envision the neighborhood as it might have been during its colonial era glory as “the pearl” of the Spanish Empire.  Imagine a wealthy neighborhood transposed directly from Europe to a tropical climate. As you sit in your horse-drawn carriage causally heading home, you’re softly jostled from side-to-side while your horse trots along the cobblestone streets. The sidewalks along the main road are dotted with green palms and you notice Spanish signs sedately hanging outside shop windows. Residents travel to and fro, taking advantage of the evening’s cool,  amidst the dimly lit lampposts and fading wisps of sunlight. Turning off the main street, you pass another horse-drawn carriage parked listlessly outside the large main gate of a large wooden house.  You wonder if it will be of use tonight or if its owners will head to their engagements via some other means of transport. Perhaps, by one of the small boats you glimpse tied up behind some of the houses, tranquilly bobbing up and down in one of the small canals that traverse the town. Your attention shifts back to the road ahead as you make a sharp turn along the boundary walls and head towards your home.

Nature, God and Spanish influence at Saint Augustine Church

Today, Intramuros no longer has canals or many cobblestone streets, but the Spanish presence lingers as does the grandoise atmosphere. Saint Augustine Church is a testament to the masonry and artistry of its makers. The church was constructed in such a way that it could withstand the tremors and violent throws of the earthquakes that shake Manila on a relatively frequent basis. Hundreds of years later, it still stands and is decorated with statues and painted ceilings so well preserved  that dozens of weddings take place in its chapel everyday. In addition, its gardens display a beautiful array of the flora found throughout the area- a reflection of past scholarly research and work. As you head towards the remnants of Fort Santiago by the Pasig River, your sense of awe increases as you soak it its immensity and crumbling beauty.

The Gate to the Fort at Intramuros

Fort Santiago originally served as a defensive fort for the Spanish during the 16th century.  Since then, it has twice been destroyed: once in a war with the Chinese and finitely during World War II. However, it’s ruins today suggest that it was once a massive stone structure capable of intimidating any intruder and protecting the inhabitants of Manila. The grand entrance to the fort bears the seal of Spain and from across the surrounding moat, the walls look immense and insurmountable.  The Fort bears a history rich in honor, national pride and death.Besides playing an integral defensive role during Spanish rule, the Fort also houses the cell where Jose Rizal, Filipino national hero and polymath, spent his last few hours before execution. Across the center courtyard today you can see his golden foot steps leading from his former cell to his place of death. Fort Santiago also poses special meaning because of the critical role it played during the Japanese occupation of Manila in World War II. The Fort served as a Japanese defensive stronghold and thus the US and Filipinos bombarded its walls, and the surrounding area of Intramuros, with shells and fire. Between their incessant assault and the fact that the wooden structure burnt to a crisp, by the end of the war most of the district was destroyed.

The district and sites of Intramuros are unquestionably beautiful. However, upon closer inspection, they’re rather hauntingly so. Fort Santiago has been reclaimed by nature. The walls and foundation are deteriorating and vines are organically creeping up through the gaps in the stone; cats and dogs leisurely meander around the grounds and distract the tourists; and the cells once used to cruelly house prisoners are now penetrated with gaping holes and tree branches. Once inside the walls, it becomes clear just how decrepit the fort has become. The Fort’s primary function now is that of a tourist attraction- a reminder of Manila’s former glory and the and the obliteration that ensued during the Second World War.

One can’t help but marvel at how Intramuros and Fort Santiago managed to survive earthquakes, attacks, natural erosion and general use for almost 400 years, yet were completely obliterated over the course of a three year Japanese occupation. The Philippines are located between two major fault lines, yearly have multiple severe typhoons  and have dozens of active volcanoes, but nothing has caused as much damage as this war.  Between 1942 and 1945, the war destroyed old Manila and though Intramuros has been renovated and re-birthed, it will never be the same as it once was. One of the most interesting aspects of the site tour for me was the language our guide used to describe the war’s impact on the Fort and Intramuros. Everything was about the Spanish, the Japanese and the Americans and their heroic efforts to “hold” and “take” and “possess” Manila during their conflicts with little to no mention of the native Filipinos.Part of me can’t help but wonder if perhaps the damage wrought by foreign powers during WWII did a lot more than destroy the wooden structures of the old city. The Global Heritage Fund has slated Intramuros and Fort Santiago as being “on the verge” of destruction not only due to their sometimes lacking management, but because of development pressures to commercialize the area by bringing in high-rise hotels and fast food chains like Jollibee and McDonalds.

The Fort walls at Intramuros

Then again, maybe it is unrealistic to expect that any historic locality should be able to preserve the “authentic feel” that it historically possessed. No fortification can keep out the persistent ebb and flow of globalization and perhaps Manila has been wise to embrace foreign cultural influences and commercialization as much as it has.  Whether the else the immense, crumbling walls of Fort Santiago  or the modern, exclusive walls of Fort Bonifacio, nothing can prevent the penetration of outside influence indefinitely. I think perhaps, the unique Filipino amalgamation of culture found in Intramuros and around Manila is just a taste of things to come elsewhere. And personally, I look forward to discerning more of its subtleties and hope that some of my own mental barriers and confines will begin to erode as they’re inundated with new ideas and experiences here.


Originally published: September 11, 2011

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