Good Morning, Cebu City

Cebu (say-boo) is the central island of the Visayas, which is the middle island group of the Phillipines, and Cebu City is the capital of that province. Ferdinand Magellan landed here in 1521, claimed the island for Spain, and was promptly beheaded by King Lapu Lapu, ending his effort to circumnavigate the globe. (His first mate carried the effort through; for some reason we still give Magellan credit, despite getting the job only half-done.)

This is one of the biggest cities in the country (3rd? 5th? depends how you count), and has all the touchstones of a Southeast Asian metropolis: sweltering, suffocating heat, shopping malls that you can take tours of, and noodles for breakfast. I’ve been busy these first few days, but I have had the chance to sample each of those hallmarks, the second of which is in the foreground of the view from my hotel:

As you’ll note, the Cebu City Marriott is in a neighborhood boasting not just the Ayala Center mall seriously, you can take a tour!) but a cluster of other gigantic upscale hotels and office buildings. Monday evening, I took a stroll away from the hotel, doing my best to follow the worn paths of other pedestrians, hoping to find some humanity.

Not three blocks from the four-star Marriott, I found myself in a warren of alleys, side-streets and passageways, carved out amid closed-sized shops and tin-roofed homes. Knee-high kids ran up and down the road, shrieking and chasing flying objects and each other, darting between motorbikes and brightly painted Jeepneys– vans with windows cut out and benches in the back that offer urban transport in the Philippines. In front of every open door, skewered meat grilled on open coal stoves, and through every window, veiled with plastic sheeting, TVs glowed and murmured, and families devoured rice bowls.

I expect this will be a common contradiction in the places I visit in the coming months, as it is in the other Asian megalopoles I’ve seen: bright and Western newness dropped jarringly into a vibrant, vital, and, frankly, poor city. On all levels, Cebu is actually among the wealthier cities in this country, but it can hardly escape its geography.

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