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Manila Mania (Literally, Figuratively)

Manic in Manila

Ah, Manila! With your traffic and noise, pollution and potholed streets, hustle, bustle and musky aroma… how (and why?!?) do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

Vibe for all

I love you for your world-class cheap and cold beers, served below zero, at one-too many establishments, it would seem, with an affinity for the night and all things rock and roll. And what is an ice-cold beer without hot music to go with it? Throw a guitar on your dusty streets, and some talented soul is bound to pick it up and play a kick-ass riff or two, for such beats the heart of many a Filipino. Your music scene and night lights run the entire spectrum; from the Magic Sing Karaoke session on the street corner, to the live rock band playing the underground circuit; the show band at the local borderline sleazy bar, to the 80s retro-revival band playing the posh, well-coiffed districts; the London-inspired DJs dropping beats at trendy dance clubs, to their not-so-sophisticated counterparts missing beats in a dive with red lights. Aaah Manila…

Treats of the streets

And what is the night scene without the awesome street food to match? Balls of all sizes, with sauces for every palate – sweet and spicy, vinegar, toyo-mansi (soy sauce with citrus), fish sauce, ketchup, and gravy (not mixed together, unless you so desire). And don’t you worry, the balls are relatively safe, at least I think they are: a mash-up of fish, squid, and other such sea dwellers. Duck eggs, fertilized and otherwise, the former being balut, the other, its decidedly less adventurous cousin, penoy. Served nice and warm, with a happy pinch of communal rock salt and spicy vinegar. And who can resist the lure of bagnet? Pork, soaked in salt and fried twice? Such is the stuff of which lard dreams are made. Ice cream in bread buns, powdered milk with strawberry syrup, crushed ice and crunchy rice bits, steamed corn and milk; these are but a few of the sweet treats off your streets. And dare we mention the more extreme, yet equally yummy delights, like fried pork blood cubes, twisty chicken guts, and scrawny chicken feet? Perhaps we should whisper these to the more seasoned, or should we say, more reckless palate.

You redeem yourself to the less adventurous with your lovely restaurants, Manila. From Chinatown to downtown, in respectable mall strips or tucked away in nooks and crannies, you teem with gustatory pleasures. Your lovely food is served up with equally lovely hospitality, even if everyone you serve is “Ma’am/Sir” in your eyes. Forced androgyny takes a back seat to good food, in my books, anyways.

Cacophony of art and style

And what of the fashion horse? Where else in the world can we dress like pure bred fillies on a donkey’s budget? Nowhere but Manila. Thank you for making me look richer than my means, allowing me to dress above and beyond the limits of my freelance writer’s budget. From your many malls, to your sidewalk “ukay-ukay” (mix-mix, dig-dig) thrift shops, you are a clothing-lover’s dream come true. I don’t mind your clothing bins, with your impossibly mixed-up stuff through which I must dig, because Paul Smith is in there somewhere, to be had for dusty hands and a song.

You not only cater to my fashion-forward self, but enrich my personality, helping to make me a tad more interesting, as well. For you, Manila, are rich in culture. Mini art galleries and independent creative labs showcase budding young talent. Experimental art abounds, from the performing to the performance, you stimulate the senses with color, verse, dance, film, sound. Your art abounds, some pieces even having found their way on the very skin that I wear. Those who say you are void of art and culture are simply misled and short-sighted, perhaps because their turned-up noses limit their eyesight. Your streets are filled with art on jeepneys driving around like they all learned from Evil Knievel. Street hawkers call their wares out in varying tones and chord progressions: “Sapatooooos, damit, sapatoooos!” cries the man peddling shoes and pre-loved clothes. This mingles with the cries of the lady selling dried fish, “Tinapaaaaa, Da-eeeeeng, Tinapaaaaa!” in an interesting cacophony of melodies and rhythms. The beat of the street; your unique Street Beat, of which the kaleidoscopic jeepney is King Of the Road, making its way down winding roads and ending up on Hollywood celluloid. The pretentious bow down to the grit of your reality, in awe and respect of the surreal becoming real. Your rich heritage lives in pictographs on cave walls not too far away; as it also does in museums, old churches and pre-war walls of stone, with optional, pre-arranged guided walking tours by a well-versed and humorous man in a hat with a boom box. How very New York of you, Manila. I love how your history, art and culture move me. How your sensory overload is almost cathartic, in a world where too many are jaded and weary.

Curious, festive spirit

When your “in-your-face-love-me-or-leave-me” personality becomes a bit much, I love how you are one air-conditioned luxury bus ride away from pristine beaches and cool mountains. I love how I can go on a seemingly never-ending road trip, at a price I can afford, then return when I am ready for more of the paradox which defines you. You are my Rubik’s Cube: though I may tire of trying to make your parts match up, I eventually pick you up again, determined to figure you out. And like an understanding lover, you welcome me back with open arms. Never questioning my absence, just overjoyed at my return.

Holidays and festivals are unparalleled in your midst, Manila. You know how to kick up your heels and party like it’s 1999, with no fear of 2000. Festivals abound within your borders and beyond, and lucky the traveler who finds him or herself caught up in the merry mayhem. It is at once fascinating as it is mind-boggling to me how – in your further-flung territories – succulent spit-roasted pig gets dressed in haute couture and paraded on the streets before being devoured. As if that were not spectacle enough, you feel the need to douse onlookers with buckets of water. Perhaps to “wet” their appetites? My, my. Fashion week with a definite Porcine, aquatic twist. Only in the southern regions of Greater Manila. Your creativity and merriment are showcased in many ways, on many such occasions.

Then, there’s your more pensive side. Closer by, pre-war bamboo organs still sound, once a year, accompanying magical voices sung in well-placed chorale parts, creating haunting melodies to bring a tear to the eye. Ah, and let’s not forget how you take every excuse that you get to dance. You are never the soiree’s wallflower, ever. “Dancing in the Streets” is more than just on old hit song to you, Manila, it is a way of life; your people have been doing it since the days of the ancients.

You are the author of brighter Christmases, more noisy and colorful New Year’s Eves. Even Day of the Dead at the local cemetery is a celebration of life. And I need not worry about where to enjoy the lavish feasting each holiday brings, thanks to the oh-so-extended families that make up my Manila. Lunch at my second cousin’s aunt’s house on the other side of the bloodline, dinner at my grandfather’s brother’s nephew’s daughter’s, and my belly is happy.

Of perspective and semantics

Your love of all things festive is evident, even in hard times. And I thank you for putting a smile on my face, for by nature, I am one to mope and lament. Floods are swimming pools, never mind what the Department of Health will tell you. Blackouts are a chance to play flashlight tag or learn a new shadow animal. A tight food budget is the perfect time for a diet. In your eyes, it’s perspective and semantics. Although at some point, I do hope you realize the need for radical change for the better, from the roots. And knowing you, you will keep a stiff upper lip through it all, though it may feel like pulling teeth.

Your humor, indeed is infectious, and evidenced in the most unusual of places. Salons with names like “Perm Foundation,” where Afro meets biblical truth, and “Douche Salon,” because douches need haircuts too. Bread shops called “Peter Pandesal,” the Disney version of your salted airy bread rolls, and of course, corner burger joints called “Mang Donald’s,” lest we be rude to the older gentleman named Donald who owns it.

The missing “D” (as in ‘Sorry, we are close’) on a sign is made up for by the extra “S” (‘Watch your steps’). Your self-defined grammar rules and tongue-in-cheek ways are priceless. Passengers are reminded not to betray the driver by pocketing their fares with such gems as “God knows Hudas (Judas) not pay,” and the more direct “Do Not Steal” above pictures of a smiling former president before she got the neck brace. You, Manila, are a laugh and a half in an oft-dismal world.

How and why do I love you, Manila? Had I a penny for each time I’ve wanted to flee, I’d be rolling in dough. I grew up on your streets, the mixed-race mestiza, “fake white chick” enduring countless “Hey Joe’s!” from urchins uncaring that I am neither American nor am I male. Often, I feel like a character in some unpublished Carlos Castañeda novel, what with the paradoxical, beyond quirky nature of daily life in your midst. Even your weather can be a cruel task mistress; your sticky humidity and piercing heat turn me into a literal poster child for Steampunk. Truly, you are not for the faint-hearted. And for this, I love you. You have made me a person of true substance, one who appreciates the good and lovely wherever and whenever, in whomever. Therefore, I stay, Manila. This is how, and why, I love you. At least half of the time, anyways! (Smile!)

Note from the columnist:

Penned this rather quirky piece for a contest which I joined, some years back. Placed a close second, but had fun, in the process of writing this, nonetheless. Thought to share this with you here, as it is fitting. Enjoy!