Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Into the Heart of Chaos

The water from the broken air conditioner drips down onto my lap, making it look for all the world as if I've pee'd my pants. As recently as perhaps even two years ago, I might have felt like it: an unplanned trip from my small city of San Fernando into the heart of Manila could easily have caused me to lose control of my bladder just a little bit. But a year in Amsterdam and another two months in the Philippines have me feeling – with a touch of ill-advised hubris – like I can handle the chaos of one of the world's largest urban centers.

The drip has become more persistent, and I move to the neighbouring seat. This one is stuck in a reclined position, but I consider it a fair compromise. It wouldn't be good for one's blood pressure to get upset about such things in this country; the Filipinos themselves just shrug it off with their typical good humour.

A couple of vendors pop onto the bus as we pass another unidentified town, and start selling food down the aisle. I think it's pork skin, but I can't be sure, so I sneak a peak.

It is pork skin, but I've been spotted. I haven't yet mastered the art of satisfying my curiosity without conveying purchasing intent (e.g. being caught looking). The pork skins are now in my face and I do my best to express that I am saving myself for a good fried banana, if one should happen past me. I would also settle for pancit, but my Ilokano skills are stretched enough by the articulation of the pork skin rejection.

I have another hour or so before we travel out of Ilokandia and into lands where my desire for fried bananas will inevitably need to be expressed in English, owing to my non-existent Tagalog vocabulary.

I dread this.

I've become addicted to the friendly smiles and surprised chattering at the market, where I deploy my modest Ilokano in order to obtain as many mangoes as possible. I can't do much more than order food and ask friends where they are going, but then, I often don't need to.

The reclined seat puts me to sleep and I wake up as everyone else is getting off the bus. Sheep that I am, I fall in line, and am immediately struck by the size and pace of what I assume is Manila. I am nearly also struck by two jeepneys and a bicycle, but this much I am used to.

I still have no idea where I am or where I want to go, which presents the lovely advantage of meaning that I can't possibly pick the wrong direction. I start walking.

Navigating using the scientific method of wandering down whichever street has more ongoing basketball games, I soon find myself arriving precisely nowhere. I decide to apply something similar to a jeepney – hoping off where a bunch of youth were congregating. Thus I find myself at Cubao City's Araneta Center. This was also the present location of my arch nemesis, Bruno Mars, but I was unaware of the fact at the time.

Actually, I remained unaware of just about everything, so I thought I may as well find a hotel. It turns out that one must pay by the hour for hotels in Manila, with an extra fee if one wishes to stay longer than 12 hours. Fine, I said, making a monumental mistake. I'll just check out at 8am then.

Off for more exploring. I'd been warned up and down of the dangers of Manila, but it seemed alright to me. At least, I was thinking this right around the time that I made a wrong turn. There was no immediate sign, no flashing lights to indicate that I'd gone somewhere I shouldn't, but the looks I received turned from friendly and inquisitive, to what I can only describe as playfully predatory, like in the scene where Simba meets the hyenas in The Lion King. I did an abrupt aboutface; no harm done, but suddenly desirous to wander somewhere nice and tame.

Happily, the Araneta Center turned out to be a giant shopping mall (Filipinos love malls). This was a nice safe place from which to reap the rewards of my labours.

For the past two months, I have been collecting friends in Manila with the same fervent passion with which we used to collect hockey cards. I scoop them up on the beach in San Juan, cultivating the friendship and gently enquiring whether we could hang out if I ever venture into Manila. I waited to make this trip until I could assure myself of at least a few friends to text when I arrived, and now, from the friendly confines of a giant mall, it was time to put my master plan into action.

A series of texts and terrifying cab rides later, my German friend, Sebastian, was remarking to me over beers (in French, so his Filipina girlfriend wouldn't understand) that we are “tall, white and good-looking. This city can belong to us.” Or something to that effect; his French wasn't much better than mine. At any rate, I was less desirous of seducing all 10 million women in Manila, but quite a bit interested by what kind of adventures the city might have up its sleeve.

The answer, on this night at least, was a fancy night club where several prominent TV personalities were drinking expensive gin in a private corner. We set ourselves up in the cozy confines of the middle of the dance floor, and found ourselves to be very popular.

I find it interesting to think that, somewhere out there on the internet, there are roughly 8 million photos of me and a bunch of Filipino friends from that night: none of which anyone I know will ever come across. Nothing scandalous: the most risque of the lot was of Sebastian attempting to ride a drunken TV personality like a pony.

I'm not sure if it was the photos, or the fact that Sebastian was, at this point, attempting to pare down his list of candidates according to shoe colour, but it somehow became 6:30am. There's something intrinsically ridiculous about rushing home in order to sleep.

The next day, I decided to explore Makati. Makati is very rich, registering at least 5 SGCM1 by my calculations. Everyone is wealthy, well-dressed, and not very impressed that I am tall and white. Well I am not impressed that they are not impressed. I sent another text, met with another friend, made my way to another bar and was ejected far too early from another hotel. For someone working for an organization with “sustainable” right in the title, I'm not doing the best job of maintaining a sustainable lifestyle.

I was originally concerned by the prospect of losing all my money to a mugging, but it seems to me now that such an event may well have saved me money. Manila is big and expensive, but different from my adopted home in more than just scale.

And it is home now, San Fernando is. The jeepney callers all know that I'm going to San Juan (of course, they guessed immediately upon my arrival, but I like to think that they are now certain of it) and the cafeteria workers all give me a smile indicative of concealed humour as I approach. In a country where drunken karaoke is treated as operatic performance, it takes some really hilariously bad Ilokano to force someone to try to hide their amusement. Manila isn't so scary, but it doesn't have all of the little quirks that I've fallen in love with. Or perhaps my narcissism simply objects to the fact that it doesn't appreciate my quirks like San Fernando does.

The air conditioner on the bus ride home works just fine, but I'm not really content until I step off the bus, sleep-deprived and half-alive, in San Fernando's plaza. Everything is familiar in a way that I hadn't previously noticed or appreciated. The tricycle drivers who immediately attempt to simultaneously run me over and pick me up seem like old friends. The preposterous, scorching heat is soothing in a way that would otherwise indicate mild sun stroke. I breath deep of the polluted air: Ah, cough cough home.

I don't need this city to belong to me; I'm quite content to belong to it.

1Security Guards per Cubic Meter

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