Hey, see you in Cebu
It is the Philippines’ oldest city, but young people are beginning to transform this fascinating place, writes Peter Barrett.
Waving a small bunch of unlit candles, the saffron-frocked woman hops from foot to foot, muttering prayers at the dark timber cross towering above her.
The prayers are different for each candle – red for love, green for success, yellow for health and blue for travel – and here at the Magellan pavilion in Cebu, pilgrims and tourists flock to have their names and custom prayers ‘‘danced’’ like this, at only 10 pesos (27c) a candle.
We are in Cebu, the Philippines, and the woman, known as a heritage keeper, is praying under the original Magellan’s Cross, which arrived here with Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, in 1521. But the dance itself goes back even further, having been adapted by Christianity from pre-existing pagan rituals designed to appease local river gods.
Cebu is the Philippines’ oldest city and, situated in the 7000-island archipelago’s geographical centre, it’s also regarded as the nation’s cultural heart. It’s home to the Philippines’ oldest Roman Catholic church, the Basilica del Santo Nino, and the oldest Spanish settlement, Fort San Pedro. It’s also known for lechon (roast pork), mangoes, handmade guitars and, every January, the Sinulog Festival, a religious street party that attracts revellers in the millions.
But something new is happening to this old city.
With the median Filipino age at just 23.5, young people are beginning to transform Cebu, riding a technological wave and breathing a youthful spark into city life.
According to our knowledgeable, if dad-joke-fuelled guide, Al Cuizon (‘‘the lechon in Cebu is ‘cholesterol free’ … cholesterol comes free with your meal,’’ he quips), after tourism, IT is now the biggest industry in Cebu and it’s getting bigger. Already home to 50 call centres that employ 100,000 people, tech start-ups and business hubs are popping up everywhere. And, following closely behind, is a new wave of Cebuano restaurants and bars, like the Isla Ora Pizza Co.
Its co-owner, American Joseph Ferrisa, arrived here in 2013 planning a diving trip. It coincided with one of the deadliest Filipino typhoons on record, so Ferris decided to help the local community in nearby Bantayan island instead. He helped raise US$30,000 (NZ$41,781) and formed NGO Young Pioneer Disaster Response, hauling trash, repairing schools and rebuilding homes.
Since then he married a Filipina, became a dad and now co-owns Isla Ora, a chain of three (so far) new wave thin-crust Italian pizza restaurants.
‘‘The food scene is developing quite quickly, which is interesting,’’ says Ferris, over local Cebruery craft beers at his
PHOTOS: 123RF More information: traveller.com.au/philippines explorephilippines.org Visit: Casa Gorordo, built in the 1850s, was home to four generations of Spanish merchant Isidro Gorordo’s family and survived two revolutions and World War II before being acquired by a cultural organisation and restored. Its immaculately presented rooms and authentic furniture and fittings were opened to the public as a museum in 1983. See casagorordomuseum.org Fly: Cebu is just over an hour’s flight from Manila. Qantas, Philippine Airlines (PAL) and budget airline Cebu Pacific can all get you there. See philippineairlines.com, qantas.com and cebupacificair.com Stay: Accommodation is plentiful in this domestic tourism hub. Mactan Island, just a few kilometres from Cebu city and connected to it by two bridges, is a popular resort destination. For example, Plantation Bay Resort & Spa offers several restaurants, artificial lagoon swimming and beach activities, including coral snorkelling. ‘‘Beach and lagoon view’’ rooms start in low season from US$190 to US$1100 (NZ$264-$1532) for a Quantum Villa, which includes four detached private bedrooms with a private villa. See plantationbay.com bamboo-clad headquarters in Kasambagan.
‘‘You have that younger vibe, centred around technology. In a way, I think it’s the city of the future of the Philippines. So, it’s exciting to be here while that energy is here.’’
Closer to the centre of town, we stop at Casa Gorordo, a two-storey house built in the 1850s and transformed into a fascinating museum of antiquities that gives a glimpse into well-heeled Spanish colonial Cebuano life. Downstairs we learn about the complex blending of cultures: indigenous Filipino, Chinese, Spanish and, later, American.
Then, chanting oro, plata, mata (‘‘gold, silver, death’’) we walk up the timber stairs, auspiciously (and by design) landing at the top on ‘‘oro’’. Our uni-studentvolunteer-guide, Hannah Librando, 21, tells us to make a wish. We do. And what does she wish for? ‘‘To graduate and get a decent job,’’ she says. – Traveller ● Peter Barrett travelled as a guest of Philippine Airlines and the Philippine Department of Tourism.
Cebu’s beautiful pagoda and dragon sculpture at the Taoist Temple.