The American Tour Guide Who Knows Manila Better Than Most Manileños
’Kano ka pala? Greg Dorris gets this a lot when he first meets his clients, but not because he blends in. Standing over six feet tall in a bright orange and yellow batik polo shirt, he's hard to miss, even in the perpetually crowded parking lot of the San Agustin Church in Intramuros.
It's a warm Sunday afternoon, and Dorris is about to tour a group of ten around the historic walled city, including his own uncle and aunt, who are both first-timers in Metro Manila.
Dorris starts his tour by explaining the history of the church, connecting it to how the Spaniards first came to the Philippines and established Intramuros, where the government would rule the fractioned archipelago. He then discusses the origin of the stone slabs of the 16th century church, and the Chinese dragon-looking dogs that guard its entrance.
“I didn’t know that,” says one of the younger tour members, a Manileño who has lived in the city all his life.
Proceeding inside the church museum, Dorris recounts the history of the Philippines from the 1500s until the Japanese occupation. Surrounded by holy relics and religious triptychs he talks about how different nations came and took the Philippines for their own, squandering its resources in turn.
Dorris is candid and snarky in his narration of our history, clearly pointing out how certain events and characters warranted a face-palm. “Of course Aguinaldo thought that the Americans would just hand over the keys of the city to him and go, 'Bye bye, it was nice working with you.'”
For some parts of his tour, Dorris uses anecdotes from people he knows personally, including a friend who's currently working on the restoration of the San Sebastian Cathedral, and another who had been an acquaintance of Manuel L. Quezon himself.
Through his time in the Philippines, Dorris has grown to revere the bravery and resourcefulness of Filipinos, especially in the face of war. He becomes emotional when he starts to talk about how ROTC students and volunteers were called to arms on Christmas Eve, with their standard World War I rifles, as army reserves to fight the Japanese threat.
Anyone who stays here for over 30 years can grasp a little of our country's history, maybe even learn a few Filipino words. But Dorris' knowledge is on its own level, and he's grown to know the Philippines better than Filipinos do.
Journey to the Philippines
A native of San Diego, California, Dorris developed a fascination with other cultures and foreign lands as a student. In his third year of college studying Cultural Anthropology, he was required to finish an internship overseas.
It was 1983 and Dorris was captivated by India. Originally, he wanted to do his internship there and volunteer at an orphanage. But the correspondence with the orphanage was taking too long and he needed to start his internship soon.
“I approached our church to help me find a place. Luckily, they needed a representative in Davao,” he said.
The same year, he spent three months in the southern city, which was infamous then for terrorists and kidnappings.
“I saw no craziness down there,” Dorris told of his time as an intern. “Nothing.”
After his internship, he couldn’t wait to go back to the Philippines. He fell in love with our culture and everything our country has to offer. Even while he was pursuing his masters degree, he would make sure to spend his vacations here.
“I would save up my money and I would travel around Mindanao,” he said.
Dorris says never felt threatened and never witnessed any crimes first-hand, despite being in Davao when journalist Jun Pala was murdered. He even pretended to be a foreign correspondent to get near the scene and ask the officers about what happened.
After his time in Davao, Dorris decided to travel the entire Philippines. He's been to every province in the country with the exception of six, including Tawi-Tawi (“I would need an escort to go there,” he said), Siguijor, and Masbate.
Eventually, it made sense for Dorris to get a job in the Philippines, and he was invited to teach at Brent School in Pasig. During that time, he stayed at a guest room at a Protestant church in the Quiapo area.
“There’s so much happening in Quiapo. You have the church and the devotees going in and out then right outside are the sellers of abortifacients, palm readers, tarot card readers,” he said.
Rather than being turned off by this bizarre spectacle of the profane, he became more curious about the city used to be known as the Pearl of the Orient. He branched out and explored the nearby Ermita and Binondo districts.
“It used to be such a nice neighborhood, so that also piqued my interest in Manila,” he said.
Dorris' curiosity then extended into research. He bought a book called By Sword and Fire by Alphonso J. Aluit, which was divided into two parts. The first half discussed the history of the Philippines from the time of Miguel Lopez de Legaspi until the eve of World War II. The latter half described in detail the 29 days during the Battle of Manila, using day-by-day accounts.
Dorris was so engrossed in the book that he couldn’t put it down. He took it with him until he slept. Reading about what happened in the city gave him a deeper appreciation and understanding of the Philippines—something eludes a lot of Filipinos.
Manila in a new light
Dorris' research lead him to discover so much about Manila that he would eventually start touring both locals and foreigners himself. His tour offerings include Intramuros, which ends in an awe-inspiring view from the top of Bayleaf Hotel. He also has a Quiapo-Binondo tour, and a Driving Tour where he takes his guests around the city in a rented car. They would visit places around Manila like Escolta, the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the Army Navy Club, and the American Cemetery.
Currently, he is listed as the official alternate of Carlos Celdran. Dorris tours groups or couples around three to six times a week. Most of the time, he would get a group of around 10 to 15 people. On other days, it can just be one person, but there are instances where he also tours classes of about 100 students.
Soon, however, he plans to officially start his own tour company. After all, he already has a steady list of clients since has also partnered with hotels like The Manila Peninsula. He's a full-fledged local now, and he'd like to continue giving foreigners a glimpse of Manila, explaining why it is the way it is. He has his work cut out for him, given how misunderstood this city is.
“Manila is not for tourists," says Dorris. "It’s for explorers. If you’re an explorer, Manila has a lot to offer."
For his Aunt Sheryl and Uncle Fred, who have enjoyed his tour and their short stay in the Philippines, ours is a country they would visit again in good weather.
“In hotels, you would see these catalogs about Vietnam, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, but we rarely see advertisements about the Philippines,” noted Aunt Sheryl. “There’s still so much we haven’t seen,” said Uncle Fred.
Towards the end of the tour, Dorris took the group to visit the crypts of those who died during the fierce battle that brought Manila down to ground zero. He took a poignant moment to lament the forgotten beauty of the city that was once called the Paris of East.
“There’s not much we can do about how Manila looks," he says. "But we can change how we look at Manila.”
To book a tour with Greg Dorris, visit his TourHQ page.