I got back from Manila yesterday. It was the first time that I’ve been anywhere that has taken me completely out of my comfort zone. The first two days were just an utter headfuck. Las Piňas, where we were staying, is the southernmost of the ten or so cities that make up “Metro Manila,” population 12 million. Manila city itself is 20km from Las Piňas, or about an hours journey in a couple of Jeepneys. Jeepneys are heavily customised fifty year old US army jeeps, and the main form of transport. Here’s one:
As car ownership seems to be restricted to the upper class, these are pretty much the only vehicles you see on the road except taxis and sidecars. To catch one you stand at an intersection, wave at one that has your destination painted on the side, pay about 10p and sit on the bench inside for a long time.
The streets of Manila are like none other I’ve seen. While Las Piňas is far from being a shanty town the only rule laid down at the planning stage seems to have been “main road goes here”. Many of the building are made from corrugated iron and other recycled materials and most of them on not what you’d exactly call a street. Everywhere there are lines of food stands and other shops, generally open 24 hours a day, with the proprietors sleeping between night customers. Street lighting is restricted to main roads, and is even then minimal. There are people everywhere.
If any of this sounds like writing with a purpose or a message then this is unintentional. I still don’t know what to make of Manila apart from that it is more alive than anywhere, but for all that wracked with some pretty extreme poverty. Half the city is composed of genuine shanty towns and street children are everywhere. As you walk down the street they grab onto you and beg for money. On Tuesday night we went out to an area called Malate and had to walk down a main road where tens of them followed, circling and grabbing at us. Of course you want to give them money but do this and within seconds you’ve formed a crowd. To them I’m a millionaire but I’m still on a very tight budget. There’s no way to avoid being the rich western arsehole.
The other negative was the sex trade, particularly the sweaty old white businessmen in uniform blue shirts tucked deep into stonewashed jeans with a thin belt. There was one at a club we went to who had eight 18 year-old girls he’d hired to go there with him, all about half his size.
Ignoring him, the club was pretty nice – lots of bowing, buckets of ice, pop hits performed by a band on stage. These cover bands are ubiquitous in the city and all accurate to such a level that you can’t help but wonder why they don’t play their own stuff. Even away from major bars and clubs the music is usually karaoke, though you don’t usually notice as the singers are so skilled. The bars are good, the drinks inexpensive and everything genuinely not just open but alive 24 hours a day.
We did get out of town a couple of times, first to a water park and then to see the Taal volcano on Saturday:
There was a restaurant where we could eat sitting on covered platforms dangling over the edge of the mountain with this view. There’s a lot of this sort of thing to see and it’s a shame there wasn’t time (or funds) to visit any of the other islands, but some other time maybe.