There are three important events that will take place in the Philippines in January 2015: The arrival of Pope Francis in Manila and Leyte; the Sinulog festival in Cebu; and of course, the Global Voices Summit also in Cebu.
There are probably many GV summit participants who are not familiar with Philippine history and culture, and while an Internet search will yield some pretty interesting and reliable information about my country, I'd like to point out a few facts that can prove useful to first-time visitors:
1. The Philippines is an archipelago in the Southeast Asian region. Composed of 7,107 islands, it has one of the longest coastlines in the world. The country has three major island groupings: Luzon, where the capital Manila is located; Visayas (Cebu is in central Visayas); and Mindanao, a southern island that used to be Muslim-dominated. Many travel magazines have ranked Boracay and Palawan among the most beautiful islands in the world.
2. Aside from East Timor, the Philippines is the only Catholic-dominated country in Asia. Catholicism is a legacy of Spain, as the Philippines was a Spanish colony for more than 300 years. After briefly winning its independence in 1898, the Philippines became a colony of the United States until 1946. As some Filipinos say to explain the dominance of the Catholic religion and the popularity of the English language in the islands: “We spent 300 years in the convent and 50 years in Hollywood”!
Because of the strong Catholic beliefs of its people and leaders, the Philippines continues to be the only country in the world—besides the Vatican—without a divorce law.
Catholic Filipinos are eagerly awaiting the papal visit next month in Manila and Leyte. Manila has already declared the period of January 15-19 a non-working holiday in the city, and the presidential office has hinted that it may also declare a national holiday to allow Filipinos to witness and join the activities of the Pope.
3. Manila is the premier city and political capital of the Philippines. It is part of Metro Manila, which is comprised of 17 cities and municipalities. Makati City is the country’s financial center.
In the Visayas, Cebu is the main economic hub. It is one of the country’s 80 provinces, and a top tourist destination. The GV summit will be held in Cebu City, the capital of Cebu province.
Cebu is known as the birthplace of the Catholic religion in the Philippines. It is famous for its food, religious festivals, cathedrals, bird sanctuaries, and pristine islands. The Cebu airport is in Mactan Island, where popular white sand beach resorts are also located.
One of the heroes of the Philippines is Lapu-Lapu (there's monument commemorating him in Mactan), a local chieftain who died resisting Spanish invaders in the 16th century.
4. Situated in the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire, the Philippines is often battered by strong typhoons, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. Leyte and Samar islands made global headlines last year after these were struck by typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Yolanda), the strongest tropical storm in recorded history.
But don’t worry, typhoons rarely hit the Philippines during the month of January. It’s a fine time to visit the country as it’s still cool across the country. How cool? Not that cool if you are from a temperate country, so I’d say pack your summer clothing and leave the heavy jackets at home. But do bring an umbrella!
5. It’s safe to travel in Cebu. Taxis are available (there are no trains in Cebu) throughout the city. And be sure to ride the jeepney, the country’s iconic and popular public transport vehicle.
And once you've landed either in Manila or Cebu, start having fun because it’s the official tourism slogan of the country: #itsmorefun in the Philippines. See you all next month!