I landed in Manila at the break of dawn on a Tuesday morning and was that weird combination of delirious and adrenaline charged, too much so to really process where I’d landed and what I was seeing, and in many ways felt the same when I left less than two weeks later. I find it hard to pin down my thoughts on Manila itself. It’s a strange city. Huge, messy. What I call “Manila” is really Metro Manila, a series of cities connected by roads and highways, with no clear cut centre or downtown. The apartment I lived in for two weeks was in a glossier, Americanized part of Quezon City. We were on the 39th floor where my view was a jagged blend of various sizes of skyscrapers, multicoloured houses, slums, roads and the Pasig river, skinny and murky green.
That first morning, in the car on the way to the apartment, we hit my first traffic jam of the city, and I wasn’t awake enough to realize that it would be the first in many, many traffic jams. The traffic in Manila is a sprawling, lazy beast, an entity unto itself. It’s hard to ignore if you spend any time within the borders of the city.The traffic is indicative, I guess, of how busy and chaotic the city is. Chaotic, but seamless too – cars straddle two lanes at a time and dart in front of other vehicles whenever there’s an opening. Buses and jeepneys barrel down the streets, and then screech to a stop to let passengers off. I didn’t witness any accidents, though, just many close calls.
Mostly what you’ll find in Manila are extremes: extreme wealth, extreme poverty (although more weighted towards poverty) and all points in between. The area I stayed in, for instance, was as North American as could be. Eastwood is essentially a gigantic mall complex with stores like Marks & Spencer and The Body Shop, restaurants like McDonalds or TGI Friday’s. I will admit to having a really great burger at Johnny Rocket’s, an American diner replica, complete with jukebox and, mystifyingly, waiters and waitresses who broke into a dance routine every hour or so. The area was clean, safe, pretty, and I felt more like I was in California than the Philippines when I was there. It’s the kind of place where thoughtful relatives will make sure a North American will stay when they’re on their first trip to the Philippines to minimize the culture shock.
Usually when I travel, I’m with Andrew and we cover a lot of ground on foot. I like culture shock. I research in advance, we look up recommendations online, we attack. This trip was different because it was just me and my mother, and I hadn’t done any preparation. My goal was simply to meet my family. I had no loftier expectations, which is why it was such a pleasure to realize that in the end, I had covered a lot of ground. My family, all relatives I had never met or spoken to before, went out of their way to show me around, to feed me Filipino foods (and the occasional pizza or McDonalds breakfast), to make sure I saw whatever I wanted to see. And so every day I would wake up early, and someone new would knock on our door to take us out.
I’ll be honest: I went to a lot of malls in Manila. There are so many of them, each with their particular slant. At Greenhills I walked through the maze of flea marketesque booths and bought knock off designer clothes. It was the same at 168 mall in Divisoria, but the clothes were even cheaper. In Makati I bought embroidered doilies from Rustan’s, the upscale Filipino department store. I went to an SM in Cubao and then realized that SM (the acronym for Shoe Mart, although I didn’t see any shoes for sale) was the Filipino equivalent of Walmart and, like Walmart, is insidiously taking over the landscape throughout the country. I don’t usually spend this much time shopping, but it was a central activity and a way to see new things.
But I did more than shop, of course. I spent an afternoon at the gorgeous Ayala Museum in Makati City, and learned about Filipino painters like Juan Luna or saw scenes in Filipino history in a huge room devoted to dioramas.
I went to an antique market and marveled at the piles of wooden carved religious iconography.
I visited the Church of the Black Nazarene on a Friday in Quiapo. The church was packed, and a long line of worshipers made their way to the altar on their knees.
Outside the church dozens of vendors sold wreaths of Sampaguita, the national flower, or waxy bundles of devotional candles. We walked through the market in Quiapo itself, a crush of people and smells and sights that I’ve never experienced before.
I went on some jeepney rides. The jeepneys are a mainstay of public transportation and a cliche of the overall look of Manila – hybrid jeeps painted in garish colours, emblazoned with pictures of Jesus or Mary or nonsensical phrases. Like any tourist, I couldn’t stop taking pictures of them at first, and then they somehow blended into the background and I wondered why I had so many pictures of jeepneys on my digital camera. A ride costs only a few pesos and the driver will stop anywhere along the route. They give you the opportunity to take deep breaths of that humid, heavy, exhaust-filled air.
Mostly, though, I spent time with my family and this time usually revolved around food, at restaurants or lunches at homes that stretched long into the day. I still want to write about this – my family, the food I ate – and also the trips I made outside of Manila. So, again, stay tuned.