Intramuros, or literally “within the walls”, is the oldest district in all of Manila. It was constructed in 1571 over the remnants of an older Islamic settlement. For over 300 years, it was the cultural center of the city before it was almost destroyed at the end of World War II. The city was rebuilt in the 1980s under Imelda Marcos in an attempt to restore the Philippines’ history and national pride. If one wanted to explore the history of Manila, there was no better place. Whereas the rest of the city had the modern sheen of the 21st century, Intramuros retained the ornate trappings of Spanish colonialism with a few Chinese stone lions for a little Asian flavour. The buildings are beautiful enough on their own, but if you want to experience the history fully, you must employ the flamboyant story-telling of Carlos Celdran.
Carlos is Filipino by birth, but went to graduate school in America and spent some time on Broadway. His tour of Intramuros is, in effect, a one man show about the history of the Philippines. Aided by a boom box, a large binder of photos, and a small but effective collection of props, Carlos crafts the story of a country built out of a mish-mash of foreign influences into something unique and beautiful. The tone was irreverent and light-hearted. Almost all of the Philippine historical figures get a good roasting. He called Douglas MacArthur a “Drama Queen” in reference to the good General’s penchant for catch-phrases, photo-ops, and political grand-standing.
I was fascinated with the way Carlos described the darker moments in the city’s history during WWII. In the battle to take back Manila, 6 of the 7 Spanish cathedrals that had stood for centuries were reduced to rubble. Some were destroyed by the Americans as “collateral damage”. Others were destroyed by the Japanese to break the spirit of the Philippine people. In some ways, it had that very effect. This was puzzling. How could such places built by foreign conquerors mean so much to the people they were imposed upon? As the tour went on, Carlos gave us the answer. It didn’t matter which culture was there first or who had stayed the longest. All sorts of bits of culture from Spain, America, China and the Philippines itself had come together to create a place like no other in the world. So, why shouldn’t the Filipinos take pride in things on their land that have beauty and majesty? The Philippines is what is, no matter who had the idea for it first.
I think that every country needs a Carlos Celdran. Every country needs a person or set of people that can take a look at that nation, warts and all, and use their love and resourcefulness to introduce that one country to the world like a member of the family. People like that make the world all the more worth exploring.