Hey, see you in Cebu

It is the Philip­pines’ old­est city, but young peo­ple are be­gin­ning to trans­form this fas­ci­nat­ing place, writes Peter Bar­rett.

Sunday News - - TRAVEL -

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

FACT FILE

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.

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