This morning Sarah and I arrived in Manila safely, poorly rested, a little excited, and generally unsure about what we were getting into. Even though it was still a couple hours until dawn and we were standing in the air-conditioning of the customs hall, we could feel the humidity and we started to get an idea of the impending heat were about to experience. Surprisingly there were throngs of locals there at 4am waiting to greet family and friends, as if it was mid-afternoon.
On the taxi ride into the city, the roads were similarly busy, filled with families on scooters, bizarre Franken-trike motorcycles belching black smoke, and the decorated Jeepneys that Manila is known for. It was a little alarming to have airport personnel casually recommend an official airport taxi to “avoid trouble” but everything worked out fine and we arrived at our hotel around 5am. Unfortunately, all rooms were booked for the previous night so early check-in wasn’t available. Already sweating, we changed into the lightest clothing we had, checked our bags at reception, and wandered out into the streets around 5:30 just as the sky faded from black to blue. Mabuhay – welcome to the Philippines!
My first thought when the air filled my nostrils was “yup, I’m back in Asia”. Its hard to describe the smell but its kind of industrial, like coal fires with curry sauce poured on top. And it permeates everything. And occasionally you pass through micro-stenches that often smell an awful lot like feces. China smelled this way too, and probably for good reason since most of China’s power is derived from coal.
The next shocking reality of Manila is just how many people are homeless. In this kind of tropical climate, shelter is unnecessary and in the first block, we passed about 10 people sleeping in doorways, reclined on the concrete, or contorted in their trikes-for-hire. It made my Philippines Air economy seat seem like a king-size bed. During the daytime you don’t see this, because people are out and about, and you assume they have homes even if its just something basic, but there’s no masking the poverty at night when they’re sleeping shirtless on the sidewalk and you’re stepping over them. Its a little alarming too, knowing that you’re carrying a year’s worth of their income in your pocket, without any real way of securing yourself against robbery. Fortunately, most of these people don’t have a mean bone in their body and they smile and say “good morning sir” respectfully. It makes you feel like a gluttonous pig but at the same time you’re wary of giving them any money for fear that you’ll be mobbed by people looking for a hand-out. At one point I said to Sarah, “I could hand this guy $1000 right now and it really wouldn’t make that much of a difference to me, but it would probably be a miracle to him.” It puts our wealth into perspective and that’s something that is still rattling around inside my head.
As we made our way from the backstreet that our hotel was located on, to the main drag, Roxas Blvd, we saw many more regular Manilans who all seemed to all be headed toward some loud music down at the park. As we climbed the steps into Rizal Park, we found hundreds of people being led in a makeshift aerobics/dance class, kinda like a Filippino version of Tai Chi, except with a giant boombox pumping Filipino techno-pop. There were energetic young girls shaking what god gave them, small children just laughing and trying to keep up, and even some of the homeless emerging from the edges of the park and doing their own demented dances that didn’t really follow the syncronized movements at all. Clearly, they were all out to enjoy Rizal Park before the oppressive heat set in. Still, it was already in the mid-twenties and the sun hadn’t even crested the horizon. When we looked out upon the rest of the park we could see hundreds more making their way toward us, as if the boombox was the center of their universe and they couldn’t resist the gravitational pull of its beats.
People stare, and that’s just something you have to get used to in Asia. Its not considered rude. Usually if you make eye contact though, they smile. I’m sure it didn’t help that I joined the dance line for a minute or two.
Now that I was good and limber, we continued our walk through Rizal Park and into the old section of town where the original fortified stone walls still stand. Although the walls date back to the 1500’s, there is not much else within the walls that pre-dates WWII – just about everything was decimated by Allied forces in 1945 as Japan’s domination in the Pacific theatre and their occupation of Manila began to crumble. So you’ll be standing on these walls, examining ancient cannons, while new buildings are going up across the street, and seemingly without any kind of building code or safety standards or any kind of desire to complete them in a reasonable time-frame. Some sections of the walls even have mini-convenience stores built into them, which all seem to sell dusty bags of mango chips and warm Coke. And just to really highlight the bizarre urban planning, the moats surrounding the old city have been filled in and turned into a rather mediocre pitch-n-putt golf course. Its just the most confused preservation effort ever.
But not all architecture in Manila is shit – there are some real gems hidden on those dirty little streets. What I really liked were the brightly painted French colonial-style buildings with courtyards in the middle, some of which are well-maintained oases with palm trees and coy ponds and bright tropical flowers. Other buildings emulate beautiful Japanese shoin architecture. And with the Philippines being such a religious country, the churches and cathedrals can also be quite detailed. There were even some amazing bombed out ruins with facades that put to shame every single modern building in Manila. Its hard to understand why those garish new buildings are being constructed from the ground up when these stunning pieces of history sit idle with wild grass and palm trees growing through their 300 year old foundations.
We were fortunate enough to arrive at the Manila Cathedral just as 7am mass began, and at first we were wary of entering in our flip-flops and shorts, but our concerns dissipated when we noticed that most other people were doing so without hesitation. The service was similar to most Christian services; hymns were sung, passages were read (in English), and affirmations were chanted. But it had a different vibe to it – the dogma that is so entrenched in Catholicism was replaced by a genuine joy and love of god. You could hear it in the chants. You could see it in people’s smiles. You could just feel it. Even though the sermon was delivered in Filipino, or Tagalog, we stayed for its entirety. You can’t deny the deep satisfaction that these simple people find in religion. It was a happy place to be.
The characters that you find in the streets are also quite amusing, from the naked laughing children, to the homeless people sweeping the streets and cleaning up garbage, to the security guards toting M-16’s like they’re baguettes. As the morning wore on we saw more and more tourists, most of them driving from one site to another in air-conditioned cars with air-fresheners and locked doors. I felt kinda sorry for them – so unable or unwilling to truly experience the gritty realities of a poor country. Sure, they see the same sights we did but they miss everything in between that puts it all into context. When we passed St Augustin cathedral there was a wedding going on and instead of being a closed door affair, the wedding party seemed happy to have us participate in the festivities. So we did. And it too was a happy place to be.
What else can I say about Manila? Thank god for air-conditioning.