The One with the First Step

My toenails have just recently grown back.

Yes, for about 6 months now I’ve been hiding my feet behind closed shoes. I can’t remember how many times my toenails have turned black and blue and then eventually fell off since I started my major mountain climbs back in 2010. It’s been a regular thing for me, and a constant agony for my pedicurist (a.k.a. my mom). It was the result of those continuous 14-hour ridge trek and the 4-day mud wading traverse but people have been telling me that I need to change my shoes. So after I finally let my well-loved and much-used Merrell trek shoes go on retirement, I had high hopes for my new and soon-to-be well-used The North Face shoes to not fail me and my newly-grown toenails.

Fare thee well. My old Merrell while on top of a jeepney in Mt. Province. My new TNF traversing Manila. First stop: the LRT platform.

And so off I went to “break” them to the nearest jungle (in the meantime) that I can find- Binondo! Binondo is an urban jungle primarily populated by ethnic Chinese living in the Philippines and according to Wikipedia (surprise!) it apparently is the oldest Chinatown in the world (but there was actually a Chinatown when I went to Shanghai, so wouldn’t that be the oldest Chinatown?? But I digress…)

I’m a fan of Divisoria and have actually gone to Ongpin St. once before but it’s either my lack of local geography or just my plain ignorance, I didn’t know that Binondo is already that same Binondo that I’ve already been to until I got to Ongpin St. later in my tour (And now I’m jumping ahead of my story…).

A friend told me that to get to Binondo, I need to take the LRT and get off at Carriedo Station. At 8 am, I found myself wandering the streets of Carriedo (Tip: remember to ask directions only from security guards/ police). The friendly and helpful guards told me I can take a jeep to Binondo but (as they probably spied my trek shoes) they said walking was a better option.

I started my tour by walking across Plaza Lacson,  I turned left to Santa Cruz Church and traversed Plaza Santa Cruz by the Carriedo Fountain.  The Arch of Goodwill welcomes everyone as I step in to Manila’s Chinatown. It was an early morning walk and the shops were just starting to open. You can actually feel Binondo stirring as it wakes up and comes alive on a Sunday morning.

Welcome to Manila Chinatown- The Manila-China Friendship Bridge

Binondo is a feast for all the senses. The streets are lined with jewelry shops with a blinding array of gold, trinkets and other accessories. As you go deeper into the narrow alleys, the minty scent of traditional medicine and herbal shops is a trademark smell that you are indeed right smack in the middle of Chinatown. At every corner, there are fruit stands and restaurants, both hole-in-the-wall and those much more known, make up an endless choice to satisfy anyone’s gastronomic needs.

I eventually found myself in Ongpin St., the most famous street in Binondo. The last time I was there with a friend, we sampled Lord Stow’s Bakery (a Macau franchise) and their famous, mouth-watering egg tart. With hot tea, it was still as tasty as ever and with Korean music blasting in the neighboring Korean grocery, I was wide awake as ever.

Awake alert alive enthusiastic: egg tart, tea and me.

On my way to Binondo Church, I made a detour to Yuchengco St. (at the corner of Lorenzo Ruiz Academy) and hunted for the famous (albeit, obscurely located) hole-in-the-wall Dong Bei Dumpling House. Again, the last time I was there with a friend, I remember the dumplings being a mouthgasmic delight. Sadly though, no dumplings for me on this tour as the store was surprisingly closed. I went ahead and continued my way to Binondo Church.

Wu Long: the traditional Dragon Dance

On my way, I chanced upon a team of people preparing for the traditional Dragon Dance. It was an exciting sight! Dragons are a big part of Chinese culture and if I share their belief that they bring good luck to people, then this adventure is surely blessed.

A blessed Sunday

I continued my way and dropped by Binondo Church (also known as Minor Basilica of St. Lorenzo Ruiz). I felt conscious wearing shorts as I quietly slipped inside (as there was an on-going mass), uttered a prayer of thanks and got out.

To cap off my Binondo morning, I visited a Chinese friend who introduced me to the newest “dug out” of affluent Chinese mall rats residing in the area, the Lucky Chinatown mall. It’s a high-end mall, proudly standing among the old 168 and 999 malls in the Binondo-Divisoria area, and according to her, it apparently is the main culprit of lost sales of SM MOA and Robinson’s Manila.

The proud and distinguished mall

I ended my tour with a brunch treat from my friend at Wanchai, where she adamantly discouraged me from ordering the typical dumplings and siopao (which she claims are Chinese food that can be ordered practically anywhere, anyway). A delicious combination of beef hofan, radish pops, chicken feet and steamed lumpia landed my way instead.

Ni Hao! Brunch treat  by my “peng yuo”.

I have never really gone out and explored on my own before. I felt very conspicuous walking around alone, feeling very “touristy” while taking pictures (and come to think of it, standing out much like how my newly grown toenails look compared to my regular healthy ones). A stickler for details that I am, I have also never gone out completely without a detailed (spreadsheet) itinerary before. All I know is that for the morning, I’m going to just walk around, experience the place, eat some and then meet my Chinese friend. Being alone plus being alone with my thoughts, is as scary as diving into the narrow and crowded alleys of Binondo (and yes, that includes the imminent danger of someone grabbing your valuables). But then this is already half of the adventure. To borrow words from Master Confucius himself, the journey to a thousand miles begins with a single step. This marks my first step, to life and all its adventures.

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