Carlos Celdran shouldn’t be a stranger to any Filipino these days, thanks to his infamous protest at San Agustin Church a while back. It earned him the nickname “Damaso”, which people would shout to him when they seem him on the streets.
However, long before that, Carlos has gained a reputation for himself through his Old Manila Walk tours. A performer at heart, Carlos conducts walking tours around Intramuros, providing a crash course in Philippine history. His tours are among the first thing foreigners and balikbayans would go to upon arriving in Manila. His unique, no-holds-barred way of telling the story attracts people to listen, providing an insight to the often misunderstood Manila and its people.
I have long wanted to go on a Carlos Celdran tour (naks, parang brand name lang siya), but time and money constraints made it a little difficult. I was fortunate enough to be able to join a quick tour he hosted in part with Samsung. While interesting, it still didn’t have the full Carlos Celdran touch of theatrics and whimsey that I wanted to experience.
He occasionally throws out barter tours, where you can give anything you think is worth something in exchange. However, it is mostly held during the weekdays which automatically made it a no go for me. When he posted a call for another barter tour and I figured it was my chance.
A Crash Course in Philippine History
I expected the tour to be mostly barter attendees, but it turns out we were going with regular tourists as well. There were quite a number of Filipinos among the foreigners, many of whom were balikbayans on vacation. One was a man who thought it would be a nice way to pass time while waiting for his friends. Another was a group of women who had roots in Manila but hadn’t been back in decades.
When I posted the trip on the Couchsurfing Philippines Facebook page, Richard was the only one who confirmed, but I was happy to see Marvin present. He introduced us to two other CS members and the five of us comprised the Couchsurfing contingent for the day.
The tour started off with Carlos giving a welcome talk, establishing ground rules (mobile phones on silent, no videos and listen with a sense of humor) and singing the Philippine National Anthem. Even from the get-go, there were a lot of things that you can learn.
And learn you will. Everything I learned in school about the Philippines was crammed into two and a half hours. No need to memorize dates or names for any quizzes, but with how it was told, you will remember. I don’t want to give details of what we did because it would be great if you experience it for yourselves.
We went around Fort Santiago, covering the 400 years of Spanish colonization. Afterwards, we took a calesa ride to the old Ateneo de Manila, which was destroyed during World War II. It was fascinating to hear its story. People every day pass by it and see it as nothing but ruins. It’s so much more than that. We said a prayer there, and went on.
(Note: The cochero of our calesa knows quite a lot about Intramuros. If you can’t go on Carlos’ tour, consider hiring a calera and your driver will gladly be your guide. It’s affordable, and you are helping them too)
Our last stop was the San Agustin Church, where we stayed just outside while Carlos talked about how the building survived. Of the seven churches the Spanish friars built during their reign, this is the only one that stands with nearly all of its original structure intact. Ironically, while the church is just across his La Monja Loca shop, Carlos is legally prohibited from entering it so we had to make do with a lecture outside.
We ended our trip at the courtyard of the Plaza San Luis where Carlos’ shop is located. Everyone was served a delicious glass of halo-halo, providing a cold, sweet end to our tour. I think everyone had a new appreciation of the Philippines and its people, not to mention seeing Manila in a totally different light. Even I have trouble sometimes appreciating this city, this metropolis, but hey, it’s got a charm underneath that grime. To the eyes of the world, we are often seen as a country with no identity. We only have influences of the countries who invaded us. Yet to Carlos (and I believe in this myself), this in fact makes us unique.
Marvin, Nalani, Richard and I wanted to check out that Japanese carinderia in Tondo, but since we didn’t know if it was open, we ended up at Assad. The funny thing was Lakapati mentioned it to me the other day and without my knowledge, I ended up there. Assad is an Indian grocery, full of spices and products Indians use for their food. I got clove oil for my toothache, samosas for dinner and a dessert that was much like our pastillas, but a little less sweet and had almonds.
We parked our tired selves in Jollibee along Osmena Highway, ordered some drinks and proceeded to talk the night away. The crew was giving us evil stares by around 10 PM, so while we were far from ready, we left. Interesting and fun day overall. I can’t find words to describe it.