The First Cut is the Deepest

To get on the Manila–Cebu City ferry from Makati City, first you must negotiate your way through the bustle and grime of some of the city’s busiest thoroughfares en route to Manila’s North Harbour Pier 4.

Philippine political and corporate history will call up to you from the asphalt: Ayala Ave owes its name to the country’s largest asset holder, Ayala Corporation, whose namesake is 19th century Basque businessman Antonio de Ayala; Buendia Ave, formerly Gil Puyat Ave, honours a former senator who founded the now incongruously named Chinabank Savings Bank.

Puyat’s family got rich from lucrative government construction contracts in the 1930s and 1940s. The Ayala family has roots in the Basque Country, in northern Spain. Exiting the family company’s sphere of influence is no mean feat, especially in Metro Manila. It owns and operates BPI, the first bank in Southeast Asia, with assets worth ₱2.23 trillion; Ayala Land Inc., a colossal real estate and retail developer; Globe Telecom, one of the biggest mobile networks in the country; and even the Manila Water Company

In the heart of Makati City, where Laura and I made our home for the best part of two years, is the Ayala District, the financial capital of the Philippines. 20 years ago, Ayala bought a controlling stake in the company developing Bonifacio Global City (BGC), which may be the city’s (and is among the country’s) most pruned, foreign-inhabited and bourgeois districts. Anyway, back to the boat.

For some reason, we had to be at the port at midnight – the ferry left at four in the morning. Getting through the various queues and checks required to board is a kerfuffle but still only takes half an hour, making the wait on the other side seem needlessly long. Still, the night air is cooler, almost refreshing.

When I got to the port, the dust-brown line of trucks and lorries waiting to enter stretched for hundreds of metres. I skirted past them, paid my dues at the oversized baggage counter, queued for the terminal fee, which for whatever reason you cannot buy in advance. When it comes to boarding, cyclists have to carry their cycles up two or three flights of external steps before entering the ferry itself rather than park up with the cars and trucks down below.

There were three other bicycles on board this particular 2GO ferry to Cebu: one, a very shiny mountain bike, was disassembled, making it easier to haul up the narrow metal staircase; another was a child’s bicycle, strapped to the top of a stack of other family belongings. When I got to the foyer area, by the reception, there were two women in sequins and a man with shiny hair singing ‘The First Cut is the Deepest’, by Rod Stewart.

Long haul ferries in the Philippines tend to offer three ticket classes. Budget travellers sleep on deck, in bunkbeds, in the open air, with cover but without walls on all sides. ‘Tourist’ class ranges from large, open-plan sleeping areas – enclosed, with air conditioning – to single berth cabins. ‘Business’ class includes anything from six berth cabins (with AC and an ensuite bathroom) to singles and doubles. The difference in price between the classes isn’t as significant as you might think – the main thing is to book early.

Tickets include meals in the canteen: a cup of rice with a meat accompaniment. There may or may not be vegetables.

Those travelling ‘business’ eat separately, in a smaller restaurant usually called the Horizon Cafe. When I got to my 14-berth cabin, several other passengers had already settled in. “This is my home,” the young girl in the bunk next to mine told a few of our neighbours. “That’s good,” one replied. The girl’s mother had gone to get linens.

The music blared in the background, the man singing now, hardening his Rs and giving his vowels a twangy edge so as to better put his listeners in mind of Josh Turner’s South Carolinian drawl. He was singing ‘Your Man’. “Good morning everyone!” one of the women interjected between lines of pop ballad. It was about two o’clock. The young girl’s mother arrived with two more large bags of stuff, belongings we’ve all been encouraged not to leave anywhere unattended. 

Breakfast runs from 6am to 8am, lunch from 11am to 1pm, and dinner from 6pm to 8pm. Depending on when the journey is scheduled to start and finish, your ticket might say ‘B:1 L:1 D:1’. You hand it over, the server puts a little tick next to the relevant letter, and you get your food.

On this particular journey, I slept through breakfast, but by mid morning, everyone was up. Half were outside, watching the low blue sea hum past. A third, give or take, were in Sea Breeze, drinking eye-wateringly sweet packet coffee and eating Sky Flakes, the nation’s favourite crunchy snack, or drinking extra strong beer.

A dozen or so empty cans of Red Horse were piled in the middle of the table closest to the karaoke jukebox. Its occupants appeared to have been there through the night. They were singing karaoke, and it wasn’t hard to imagine them having kept the machine playing for ten hours straight, providing the sonic backdrop to family breakfasts and truckers’ solitary musings.

It was shortly after I had my lunch that I properly met Ishmael…

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