I was in Cebu two weeks ago, working on assignment in Shangri-La Mactan, a beautiful well-planned resort away from the city—an hour’s drive away, maybe longer, depending on the traffic. This is what it has come to for Cebu: Manila-like traffic, inexplicable road constructions that have stretched on for far too long, the evolution of a city bound to business centers and large malls, an expat community and a growing migrant population.
Two, three years ago I was visiting Cebu so often the streets became familiar, the tourist spots mine. I made friends and found family there. On one of those visits I finally got over a hump in the writing of my first book; the rhythm of writing changes with the places we go to. Cebu was my second favorite change of p(l)ace (the first being Tiaong).
What I loved was how provincial Cebu still was even as I knew that the Ayala Mall and SM, the technological and BPO hub were already there. One could go to Cebu without passing through these places after all. I remember walking with friends through Cebu City, using a map to get us from the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño and the Magellan’s Cross to Fort San Pedro, taking photos of the sad old buildings along the way. We’d go to the smaller groceries, the original tindahan with otap and rosquillos.
Once, staying at a small hostel on Mango Avenue, the small stores around the Fuente Osmeña rotonda became familiar, and walks—if not short cab rides—were made towards the Bo’s Coffee near the City’s Capitol. Another time, staying at Escario Central Hotel, I lived off the small neighborhood cafés and restaurants (yes, including Zubuchon haha!) outside the hotel for three days, and only stepped out to visit Kenneth Cobonpue’s warehouse and have lunch in a small hotel with the Ypils.
Cebu was small to me for sure. And even as at some point we found ourselves driving two hours to a far away resort, what we found was Hale Manna, a family home turned into resort, with a wild garden and homecooking-to-die for. We woke up to the sea framed by old trees and rock formations, untouched by pang-turista aesthetics.
Building a Shangri-La
When we arrived at Shangri-La Mactan, someone declared: welcome home! And what a home it was.
I’m no expert on fancy hotels (obviously, haha!), which is not to say my standards were low. I was just willing to be surprised.
Once I got over the abundant buffets and the well-maintained beach, the fact of a pool to swim in every day and the limitless brewed coffee for the deadlines I hand-carried to Cebu, what was truly surprising about Shangri-La was how well-curated it was as a space. While it is filled with large areas for group excursions and meals, there is the quiet alternative of smaller restaurants and nooks and crannies away from the noise and merriment. The expanse is not heavily developed, and it doesn’t seem like any of it was unthinkingly done. Where the view of the boundless sea was wonderful from my hotel room, what was more wonderful was the stretch of greenery that leads to the shoreline.
Of course all of this was only possible because of hotel staff who remained nameless to me—they were also too numerous it would’ve been difficult to keep track. One could dismiss it as standard Filipino hospitability and service, but also there was a generosity here that made it feel like home, where writerly needs such as an extension for the laptop so that I could write in bed, or the coffee ordered at insane hours were met with no surprise, just a nod of the head and an encouraging smile.
Of course this could be part of the service. But one might argue that it takes much more to turn service into humanity.
Erasing the city
To say that staying at the Shang erased the Cebu City I loved would be an understatement. It is easy to get lost after all in the decadence, the removal admittedly a welcome delusion.
But finally leaving the hotel to go to the city was escape as well, going back to what is familiar and real is like finding self. On the hotel shuttle from Mactan to the Ayala Mall where we were to be dropped off, and then driving through the city with a friend, the poverty that continues to exist, the underdevelopment (the anti-development?) was jarring. Now existing relative to streets being dug up for some 2016 votes, and against fancy malls filled with expats and expat-children with local yayas, it is on the one hand reminiscent of Manila, as it is a unique display of uneven development.
Where in Manila one can exist beyond the impoverished communities and live oblivious to these, Cebu is too small for blindness. Here, development remains surprisingly—and gladly—an encroachment, drawing a clearer picture of class difference from Mactan to Cebu City, from Ayala Mall’s new wing with expensive stores to Escario Street where all one hears is the lambing of Bisaya.
There was laughter and drinks, a house filled with art and a balcony of plants and chimes, which that night had a view of the moon. There was Tito Gerry’s garden, and laughter at Tita Chita’s lunch table; a bed on which I slept as soundly as I would in my own home, windows that opened to greenery long-tended.
It would be too much to ask that this Cebu is never lost. The promise of development after all is the disappearance of the cities we grew up in for what is deemed as better. In the meantime though, while Cebuano friends complain about the traffic and the congestion, the dominance of expat culture in places, one is glad for this interim, this time of transition when both Cebus co-exist. This co-existence is of course a delusion in itself. I’d choose it over erasure any time.