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DESTINATION: PHILIPPINES

Celebrating in Cebu

A Hispanic heritage of faith and history merges with an even older culture in the city Magellan christened

April 11, 1999|CHARLES CORN | Charles Corn lives in San Francisco. His most recent book is "The Scents of Eden: A History of the Spice Trade."

CEBU CITY, Philippines — I was here in January, an auspicious time for a visit to the Philippines, with the exchange rate heavily in the foreigner's favor and a welcome social stability in marked contrast to the anguish and violence racking the country's southern neighbor, Indonesia. On my first trip here several months before, I was reminded of Indonesia, also a former colonial nation of islands under long-standing authoritarian rule, yet the Philippines is very different.

The Dutch were content to limit their power in Indonesia to commerce and governance. The Spaniards didn't stop at claiming the archipelago they discovered and named for the future King Philip II; they also felt compelled to baptize its inhabitants. This conversion of the Philippines to Roman Catholicism is responsible in no small part for the nation's reputation today as the least Asian of Asian countries.

As my flight approached Manila's airport, I thought of the time I lived in Mexico, and I tried to imagine a Latin American country superimposed on a Far Eastern one. My first visit to the Philippines had been confined mainly to Manila's haphazard, fetid but vibrant urban sprawl, and it ended too soon. Even this time, I could manage only a long weekend after completing business in Palau, about 500 miles to the east. But I wanted to see something more of this country of 7,000 islands and 67 million people.

A friendly old hand suggested I see Cebu City and adjacent Mactan Island in the center of the archipelago, easily manageable in my allotted time.

My "source" was a former U.S. Marine Corps colleague I'd corresponded with but hadn't seen in more than 30 years. He'd retired from the corps and returned to Cebu with his family. I was happy for the chance to see him in his homeland; that my visit would coincide with the annual festival in honor of the Christ Child--Pasundayag sa Sinulog--was all to the better.

Once aground, I sensed that this was an exciting time to be in the Philippines. The nation had just celebrated the centennial of its independence from Spain after four centuries of colonialism. A new president, Joseph Estrada, had been elected. And an unseasonable storm was gathering on the horizon. I was thinking that the air smelled of possibility crossed with a tincture of natural menace when, ahead of me, I recognized my old friend, Basco Consigio, and 30 years lifted like a theater curtain.

Though it is no secret that Americans and Filipinos fought side by side against the Japanese during World War II, it is less known that many Filipinos have served with distinction in U.S. forces. Basco, a career Marine, was one of them, and we served together. After three decades, he was his same short, wiry self, now with a few white hairs salting his pepper-black crew cut. We embraced, and he greeted me with my code name, "Iron Hand Charlie." Then he presented me with a walking stick he'd carved himself, similar to one he'd given me years before, when we were both limping on bum legs.

Basco had been in Manila on business. Claiming my luggage, we rehashed old times with the urgency of men with a lot to cover in little time, and boarded a one-hour flight to Cebu's Mactan International Airport on Mactan Island.

Despite the storm warnings, the weather held and the flight was smooth.

Cebu City is the country's second largest metropolis and a major port. Mactan Island sits just offshore, connected by causeway and bridge. Founded by explorer Ferdinand Magellan in 1521, Cebu is also the oldest colonized city in the Philippines and the cradle of Christianity in the Far East. This history is venerated in Magellan's Cross, which he planted where Filipinos were first baptized. The relic was thought to possess supernatural powers, and believers chipped off pieces of it over the years. The fragments that remain are in a replica housed in a monument a block from Cebu's waterfront in the heart of the city.

Basco dropped me off at the hotel I'd booked on Mactan Island, with plans to start our sightseeing the next day.

The Shangri-La is a luxurious tropical oasis with a private beach on a ribbon of emerald sea not 20 minutes from the airport.

I rose early the next morning, Sinulog Sunday, in anticipation of the Pasundayag festival, and after laps in the pool and a dip in the ocean, I found Basco waiting for me in the lobby. We drove across the high span of the bridge, freighters passing beneath us, into Cebu City, with its rebounding economy and the obvious growing pains of a city on the move. Despite Asia's stagnating economy, the go-getting Cebuanas applaud the mushrooming of hotel-casino complexes and the cash such places bring in from foreigners, especially Hong Kong and Taiwan Chinese.

"Ceboom," as the locals call it these days, is also an industrial and commercial center, and it's still a sailor's town, with all that that implies.

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