Sta. Ana, Manila: A Summer of Surprises at Manila’s Sta. Ana

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Manila, being a capital city, is teeming with and surrounded by highly urbanized business and leisure districts. In between these pulsating points of manic activity are scattered residential areas. One in particular, Sta. Ana, has never made an impact on me before.

It is not popularly depicted in art or in literature, unlike Tondo, which has scores of Philippine books and films bearing its name. Neither has it hosted a popular T.V. show, like Paco with Paco Park Presents, which I grew up watching. Also, geographically, it is bordered by fellow Manila districts Paco and Malate at its north and west, and the cities of Makati and Mandaluyong at its south and east–mostly business and cultural hubs. In short, Sta. Ana is a place I would usually just pass by and was hardly ever my destination.

Besides, why would I want to head to a residential district for a summer adventure when the whole point of summer is to get away from home? Is there anything I can actually enjoy doing in a neighborhood such as Sta. Ana? What is even there to see?

Over 130 ancestral houses

Officials of the Philippine tourism department invited me to a walking day tour of Sta. Ana’s streets to have a glimpse of the district’s ancestral homes. Most of these homes were built during the Spanish and American occupation, and are therefore survivors of the second World War. The district was also a prime settlement area before and during the Spanish regime, I was told, especially since it lies next to the Pasig River.

The Gawat ancestral house at the corner of Medel and Suter streets was built around the 1930s, when the family’s patriarch won a lottery. The two-storey home is made of dark brown wood, and though it may look simple and small from outside, the ceiling is towering from inside. As in other colonial houses, it has its living spaces set in a loft-type second floor, as the ground floor is usually set to be a place for business or accepting guests. But this guest was allowed to go further up.

The wide hall of the living room was decked with old world glory–diplomas of the family’s professionals framed on the walls, archangel and cherubim figurines housed in glass-paneled shelves, plain wooden furniture and fixtures that have stood the test of time. All of these were lit and warmed by the sun shining from the house’s wide, wooden sliding windows. This old antique home was anything but spooky–it had a joyous vibe, actually. This was confirmed by Vincent, one of the Gawat grandchildren who has been living his 14 years in the house.

“Is it happy here?” I asked, to which he nodded and replied with a smile, “Opo! (Yes!)”

He also said he sees no problem in letting guests like me see his home.This should be good news to the government, which has recently reached out to these inheritors through an awareness campaign, to make them realize the value of their inheritance on local and national tourism.

The Parish of Our Lady of the Abandoned

As I stood on the blue and white Ming Dynasty porcelain tiles on the floor of the camarin, the dressing room of the image of Our Lady of the Abandoned, the church’s officials told me a story. It is more than just a story, in fact, because it happens without fail, every feast day of the church on May 12. A sintu-sinto (homeless, mentally ill person) arrives at the church and looks on at the festivities. The parishioners feed the person. By the end of the day, the sintu-sinto disappears. It’s as if he were led by the Lady to the church, to be taken care of by his brethren, at least during her feast day, the officials told me.

The church is the first Franciscan mission established outside the old Manila capital, Intramuros, in the 1700s. Since then, the black-gray adobe parish has withstood war and natural calamities, with only mainly its roof bearing minimal modern improvements. The stone walls and antique wooden staircases and hallways are all-original and intact.

Even the church convent, which can be accessed by passing through the choir loft, has its carved antique wooden bars preserved, keeping the clausura (cloister) protected for the privacy of the friars. It was my first time to go that near to a dwelling of priests so I made the most of it and peered as much as I could beyond the bars. It was probably nearing lunchtime–I could see the priests’ cook busy in the kitchen.

Pancit palabok, a la Sta. Ana

At the public market of Sta. Ana, look for Dema Fabilonia, heiress to a legendary family recipe of pancit palabok (vermicelli-type noodles in shrimp paste sauce). Their brand of pancit palabok has come to be known as the Sta. Ana kind.

While all over the country, the usual noodle used is bihon (extra fine white flour noodles), pancit palabok Sta. Ana style has miki (fine egg noodles) in the mix. But it’s not only the yellow miki that gives the Sta. Ana dish its characteristic look. It does away with shrimp and chicharon (fried pork fat snack) toppings, replacing it with tampalin (fried pork belly fat taken, with the skin intact). This crunchy, even-more-sinful topping melted in my mouth in just a few seconds after I took in a spoonful of the hearty noodle dish, which also has the staple pancit palabok ingredients such as tinapa (fine fish flakes), finely diced tofu, and sliced boiled eggs.

A bilao (woven tray) of the dish costs 300 hundred pesos, good for a dozen people. Dema accepts bulk orders but delivers only within Sta. Ana. This means one really has to go there to have a taste.

The Manila Boat Club

In a quiet nook by the Pasig River, housed in a two-storey wooden clubhouse, the Manila Boat Club has been in existence since the 1930s. When I visited, I was greeted by its British members who were not only willing to ride the river’s currents to share their rowing expertise – they also told me the names of the sculls that hung upside down all around the clubhouse.

Some of the boats have been around for 80 years, yet all are fully functional. According to my hosts, six in the morning or evening would be the best time to row, Some of the rowers ride as far as towards Laguna de Bay on one end, but they cannot row past Malacañang Palace (the seat of the Philippine presidency) on the opposite end, obviously for security reasons. The club, apart from supporting the gold-medal winning national rowing team, also helps in the rehabilitation program of the Pasig River. The river has been the concern of a lot of conservationists over the past years, but seeing white pigeons hover above our British rowers riding the currents was a good sign–it means the river can once again sustain life. More than winning more recognition from boating competitions across Asia, the club looks forward to hosting international regattas on the river, their quiet neighbor and most loyal member all these years.

How can one join the club? Simply drop by the clubhouse, chat with the fine British gentlemen members, perhaps also play a short game of squash with them in one of the three squash courts inside the clubhouse, share a few drinks at the bar, and be counted in.

And at the outskirts of Sta. Ana…

… lie the Manila Ocean Park of the nearby Ermita district, and San Miguel By The Bay of Pasay City, right next to Manila.

Manila Ocean Park is right behind the Quirino Grandstand and just a few blocks away from the Manila Hotel, making the Philippine’s first marine theme park accessible not only to Sta. Ana residents but also to guests billeted at the Manila Hotel and the surrounding Ermita tourist belt. Apart from featuring exotic fishes and corals in its wall-to-wall and ceiling aquariums, the park is also equipped with high-end lounging and dining facilities. It has even built a water-themed luxury hotel, Hotel H2O, and the elite Liquid Pool Lounge bar, all within the park grounds.

Since it was too early for me to don my bikini and drink cocktails over at Liquid, I milk-fed the koi fishes at the park instead, through a milk bottle which guests can partly dip in the koi aquarium. A bunch of koi hurried to suckle on the afternoon drink, and I stood amazed as I saw them take their turns, one little mouth after another tugging at the tip of the bottle I held.

I capped my day tour with a stroll along San Miguel By The Bay. It may be our equivalent of Venice Beach, with less the wildness and more of the hominess. I was impressed at how security men watched the crowds, and at how aides promptly maintained cleanliness and order. No wonder families gathered at the place, I thought, and both local and foreign families at that.

San Miguel By The Way is sprawled just outside the Mall Of Asia, another rising Metro Manila attraction, the tourism officials told me. More of a wide walkway than a park, San Miguel By The Bay is studded with cafés, food stalls, small restaurants, and benches out in the open-air, from where people can sit back and watch the ever-famous Manila Bay sunset. While waiting for that, though, I looked up at local teenagers ziplining across the park, and at western kids standing on the benches, playing “air guitar” in synch with a pop song in the background.

The day’s adventures affirmed a few things–that, sometimes, one need not stray too far from home to have an adventure, and that sometimes, a plain neighborhood may hold gems unknown even to its residents, who dream of distant places to have adventures. The Sta. Ana folk are lucky to have their home, and travelers like me are even luckier to know about another unexpectedly quaint destination.

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