Reflections on Seeking Solutions, 2018-2019

The Manila Memos, Issue 5, 2018 December

I said to Carmen after we had recovered from our Sunday trip to Cavite that I didn’t want to spend my entire visit to Manila in the hotel and shopping at The Podium. She was quite content to do just that but after a day at the Gym/Spa in the hotel, she also knew I needed to explore and learn more about this country. Carmen was not my only agenda in The Philippines; I was also a tourist. I also knew Emily’s ghost was all around me, somewhere. I wanted to see more of Manila; the rest of The Philippines would have to wait for some future trip.

After some fruitless frustrating internet searching for a tour company, it occurred to me the hotel might have its own connections. And 15 minutes later I had a reservation with Speedynet Tours for a guided excursion of Manila. Our driver, Jun (not July) arrived a little after 1:00, almost on time (!). Traffic was a merely moderately heavy, he remarked laconically. Jun assisted the lady and me into his 2017 Toyota van. We were the only passengers. Perfect. After a few minutes of idle chatter as to what we would like to see of Manila Jun realized I was curious about the history and origins of the Philippines and its people and culture. Carmen was content to do whatever I wanted; she remarked in her broken English that being Filipina and having I lived around Manila for many years, she had seen it all. I didn’t let on that I was trying to understand the cultural divide that might divide us (or that did divide me and Emily) but she was an intelligent woman; she knew. Jun probably knew this too – how many thousands of American men came to the Philippines every year seeking a relationship with a woman? He said he would take us to 3 or 4 historical highlights of Manila in the colonial Spanish quarter but also to some of the more ‘challenging’ areas of the city. As it turned out, these challenging areas left a lasting memory in my mind.

Our driver wound his way out of the hotel, u-turned past the Podium to San Miguel Blvd and eventually on to AH92, the main expressway of Pasig City. [Footnote, traffic is right side of the road, obviously the influence of the American protectorate; one wonders what would have happened if Japan had won the war…] AH92 is a divided multi-lane road with a high barricade between directions, and an unfinished overhead expressway, a four/eight lane wide thoroughfare. It’s oxymoronic of course to say expressway because traffic moves at a crawl. ‘Moderately heavy? ‘, I thought to myself; chaos more likely. I say four lanes but at least six lanes of vehicles are trying to squeeze into those four lanes. There is an illusion of progress because everybody is constantly jockeying for advantage. Motorcycles create lanes of their own and they dart in and out alarmingly. The ever-present Jeepneys tend to keep to the right shoulder, as do the motorized bicycles with sidecars (affectionately called tricycles), and two kinds of coaches (air-conditioned and non-air-conditioned buses, commanding progressively higher fares than the Jeepneys!) but their frequent stops and starts to pick up and drop off passengers slow things down. It doesn’t help when ambitious car drivers use the inside lane thinking they have advantage and get blocked by the Jeepneys and then are forced to re-enter the fray… nor does it help when the Jeepneys appear to deliberately occupy a lane and a half. Progress was maddingly slow but Jun and Carmen seemed nonplussed. Did only Westerners suffer from hypertension? We heard a siren somewhere behind us and eventually an ambulance made its appearance in the rear-view mirror. Drivers made half-hearted attempts to give the ambulance the right of way but progress was painfully slow for that driver. When our van had finally reached the desired exit 30 minutes later, we passed the ambulance now on the lower ramp below us; you had to wonder what happened to the patient. 

By some miracle not obvious to me we emerged into the comparative tranquility of the main boulevard of the Makati District in the Mandaluyong City, the principal financial district of Manila. It felt like any modern metro center anywhere: tall 30/40 story buildings, wide sidewalks, civilized traffic, familiar corporate names. Our driver explained that Manila was now a mega city, made up of 16 cities and 16 million souls. Old Manila, the Spanish colonial centre, is but one of those sixteen centres, next door to Makati. 

The towers and hotels of modern Makati soon receded into the rear mirror and Jun had us weaving through a number of urban residential streets and narrow side streets packed with five story apartment buildings divided by dark and even narrower alley-ways. Some of these side-trips may not have been by design as there seemed to be road and sewer construction everywhere; detours abounded. Some of these detours took us down some very narrow almost un-navigable streets for a large van. Jun had to reverse a number of times to make the turns but seemed completely unperturbed. Mission Impossible images kept entering my mind.

In sharp contrast to the modern city was the destitution of the poverty-stricken neighbourhoods mere blocks away. It was also striking to me, or anyone with a sensitivity to the paucity of language without context, how this situation was described by our guide. Jun, perhaps quite unaware, even though an educated young man, described the environs from a purely native Manila perspective. What he labeled ‘middle class neighbourhoods’ would be only described as poverty level in urban Canada, and ‘lower class’ would be almost unliveable. The truly homeless in Manila however might actually be better off than their counterparts in Canada because at least they don’t have to deal with killing cold. Still the tiny alley-ways with laundry and ‘living quarters’ hanging five stories up between buildings with no electricity was mind numbing. At the same time my mind was struck by images of James Bond or Ethan Hawke scrambling through just such neighbourhoods trying to evade his captors. It was voyeuristically fascinating. But it also made me feel like another schadenfreude tourist.

Old Manila sits at the mouth of the Pasig River which winds around the cities by Manila Bay. It’s not really a river, more of a narrow navigable channel that emerged as the old swamps were reclaimed and became Manila. It was the seat of the Spanish regime for more than 300 years, and the government and cultural centre of the Philippines Republic after the Americans established its protectorate following the Spanish-American War of 1898. The Americans were expelled by the Japanese in 1942 and as General MacArthur famously said, I shall return. And return he did. But the Americans were not going to risk thousands of casualties and possibly years of house-to-house street fighting in the dense alleys of Manila. Instead they bombed it to oblivion. Much of what you see in ‘old’ Manila is reconstructed from recovered materials. And the commerce centre moved further in to the delta to become Makati.

After touring the old city, the Fortress Santiago, catching a glimpse of the Presidential Palace (still barricaded since the student riots in 1972 and the imposition of marshal law by Ferdinand Marcos), the University quarter (a dozen universities all within the same block adjacent to the Presidential Grounds), the Cathedral (in its eighth incarnation), and the second-hand book stalls and forgery boutiques, we made our way home by way of Manila Bay Parkway. Manila Bay is everything you might remember from WWII war movies, a huge expanse of water littered with ocean-going cargo ships of many sizes. But to my mind, these modern steel hulks were transformed to the US Navy being strafed by the Japanese Airforce in 1942, and then returning to liberate The Philippines once again.

It’s too bad the return drive to Discovery Suites Hotel took an excruciating 2.5 hours of relentless lane dodging. What’s the word for land-sickness? It was small comfort when Jun reminded me that the lane markings were merely ‘suggestions’: ‘We Filipinos lack discipline,’ he remarked, not self-consciously, ‘but look, hardly any damaged vehicles!’ Somehow, it worked.

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