Manila, Philippines: Two Extremes

What travel stories do you have?

Global travel blog that features travel stories on living, traveling and growing up in cities, villages and towns around the world!


Manila, Philippines: Two Extremes

Metro Manila is the capital region of the Philippines. Its seventeen cities and municipalities is an urban jungle filled to the brim with an unbroken sea of humanity. Within its six hundred square kilometers (roughly the size of Virginia Beach) are twelve million people (roughly the population of Virginia and Connecticut combined), each weaving their own unique thread in a rich, complex, and sometimes downright confusing tapestry.

Thus for me, a childhood in Manila was one of dualities and contradictions.

I grew up in the edge of the metro, in Marikina City. It is a small city sitting at the base of the Sierra Madre mountain range and bisected by the region’s cleanest river. It was a quiet oasis for me amidst Metro Manila’s chaos thanks to its tree-lined streets, numerous parks, order, discipline, and open space.

Most of my days in Marikina were spent in the confines of an all-girls Catholic school, running around its vast tree-lined grounds, fantasizing about boys and growing up when we weren’t occupied by rigorous Math and English. Summer afternoons were consumed with playmates on the street, battling over hopscotch or our favorite Filipino game, patintero. Sundays were for walks through parks and the gurgling creek to a commercial center with about ten occupants. One of which was McDonald’s, where I would have afternoon snacks with my family.

In contrast, I also spent countless weekends in my mom’s childhood home. My grandparents’ house was in the heart of old Manila, called Sta. Cruz. It was in a narrow street, built for two lanes of tricycles, a Filipino vehicle similar to tuk-tuks, or one and a half lanes of sedans. The houses stood wall to wall, with front doors only a step from the street. Sometimes you could hear what the next-door neighbor was watching on TV. Sometimes you could see them from across the street fighting. Mostly there was just the constant din of a bustling life.

To this day I am glad for such a textured childhood. At a young age I got to see diversity and variety. I learned the essence of being “full of life”, from the relaxed pace and peaceful atmosphere of Marikina, as well as through the super-charged energy of Sta. Cruz.


Men hung out on the street where they would set up a table and stools and drink the afternoon away. Women congregated by somebody’s door sharing the latest gossip. Kids played street games and got into all sorts of mischief. Street food vendors would pass through throughout the day, one after the other. “Taho!” “Squid balls!” “Balut!” But when we heard a bell ring all the kids ran outside to get their “dirty” ice cream. It was not dirty of course; it was actually quite fantastic, with flavors like cheese, mango, and chocolate. It was only called thus because it was sold on the street.

Manila Streets

Manila Streets

We would go back to Marikina on Sunday mornings, taking a rickety, open-air city bus that used to ply those routes back in the day. Manila was not too congested then and traffic actually moved at a decent pace. The bus had extra-large windows and I always tried to stick my head out, even if I always got scolded. “Your head would get cut off!” my nanny would tell me. The scenery consisted of low concrete buildings housing small businesses. Grimy store fronts and faded sign boards would read “Hong Ning Chinese Restaurant”, “Emerald Paper Supply”, “Bhoy’s Vulcanizing” all sitting side by side. Halfway through the trip though I would always fall asleep, exhausted from yet another action-packed weekend.

As the years progressed, the Manila of my childhood steadily evolved into the beast I now know today. My grandparents left their house and moved in with my uncle, also in Marikina. Many of the old concrete buildings and their rustic storefronts have since been torn down for malls or high-rise condominiums. The rickety buses we used to take have been rendered obsolete by air-conditioned trains and passenger vans. Even the dirty ice cream’s bell has evolved into a looped recording of some song.

And yet, as modernity stretches its arm farther and farther out in the country’s capital, my small city at the base of the mountain range stays the same. Sure, its population has grown and there are now more than ten occupants in the commercial center. We even get our fair share of traffic jams now. But in essence, the Marikina of my childhood has barely changed. It is still the quiet oasis, filled with green spaces, ruled by order and discipline, and bisected by the region’s cleanest river.

To this day I am glad for such a textured childhood. At a young age I got to see diversity and variety. I learned the essence of being “full of life”, from the relaxed pace and peaceful atmosphere of Marikina, as well as through the super-charged energy of Sta. Cruz. I learned that a rich life was not only filled by comfort and convenience, but also of excitement, of character, and of constant change. The tapestry of my childhood was built by two extremes, and now that I’m constantly traveling all over the world, I have it to thank for my ability to find deeper connections with a place, to appreciate every locale’s own personality, and to always thirst for more.

Julia Escano

Julia Escano

Julia is a digital nomad currently alternating between Manila and Vancouver. She likes getting toasted in the sun and believes that saltwater has healing capacities. You can find her work at and at her Instagram handle, wanderingjulia08.