I started my trip the ideal way: landing in one of the world’s largest cities, statistically the most dense. This is the perfect way to orient the palate, a verbose and ravenous introduction to a culture, the buffet method. First banking in a night sky above the red and gold dragons of traffic that slither over glassy terrain, then stepping out of a skyway to a new volume of air. If you’re going to see a place, and you want honesty, go to the city. And I mean a big city—the largest you can find. Because a city lies to you, a city hides things from you, a city is trying to sell you something at every corner. It’s packed full of people and pressure and necessity and desperation. All of the intangibles of society, all the ideas and principles and concepts that form the humidity of a great number of people in proximity. People magnify each other’s desires, and while they may try to hide them behind billboards and branding, the impulse has been outed, the fetish revealed. Stacked atop each other in towers and malls, the people all sweat their passions and jealousies and schemes into a puddle of concrete and neon. And I was here looking for enlightenment.
It all seems so farcical I suppose. You’re still in the airport and the first thing you notice is how they package their Coca-Cola. Or the local flavors of potato chips. Or the woman in the advertisement above the counter. It’s a sales technique. You’re a tourist and you’re a resource. Everything is designed to open your wallet, everything is a pitch. But a sales technique, like a dancing or that secret sex move, is everything the salesman knows about the world, all of his observations and abilities regarding his fellow man. It’s a distillation of desires, the location of the source of human appetite and a map to get there. And like sex or dancing, or chess or driving, it’s the movement of one body to the rhythm of another. I put my body here, you put yours there, and we rub together and maybe we both get to where we want. The better you know the movement of your neighbor, the easier you both get where you need to go.
If you know how a person lies to you, you know how he lies to himself. You know what you know and what he thinks you don’t. You know what he wants; you know his fears and failures. His goals, his gods, his greatest intentions are all in his lies, presented to you with greasy honesty.
It’s all right here in the city. The city sells me a life, a home, a piece of whatever promise brought us all here. It sells me the truth and a road to get there. It sells me heaven and gives me the address. It sells me my own slice of the pie and throws in free shipping.
Exit the airport to the kowtow of an automatic door, then coast to the hotel on a caravan of sales pitches. Sell me a car for a day, sell me a seat on a bus for an hour. I’ll buy an air conditioned cab ride if it’s packaged up with too much dashboard kitsch and kicked around the streets at too high a speed. I’ve got to eat, sell me local cuisine made in my image. I’ve got to sleep, sell me a room with a view or some nice curtains.
My introduction to Philippine cuisine was the sufficiently cosmopolitan version sold in an art museum café. Under the ropey, tangled branches of a banyan tree I first sampled pancit and palabok and mango shakes. And while the particular formulas seemed odd on the menu—garlic and fish flakes and pork rind—when served they were inviting and downright alluring. Earthy and pungent, the flavors were physical, gripping and lingering in their bed of noodles.
The Ayala Art Museum was a broad swagger of brushed steel and glass leaning against a banyan tree and coolly gazing at nothing in particular while reading you like a banner ad. Chatty modern art filled the first two floors with references and bold statements and academic assertion. Three held what we came for, the current exhibition, a meditation on the development of Filipino identity under the duress of ages of colonialism.
The elevator opened directly to the exhibit, and for a moment I equivocated, hemming in the impatient sliding door. I faced a room, round and black, narration glowing from projected infographics across the diameter, floor glowing spotlit and flecked with gold. Had others not been there already I might not have realized that I was meant to walk on the floor, which acted as a shadow box to a star map of many hundreds of antique gold coins. Under plate glass, these coins lay proudly and triumphantly returned to the land of their nativity while, above glass, I still padded carefully between them and continued through the exhibit. As the voice from the ceiling would report, the rooms presented centuries of native Filipino crafts, artifacts, sculpture and metalwork. All of it had been mined from the island’s inhabitants over the last five centuries, and only now was accessible for Filipinos to see.
In the sixteenth century Magellan towed the bleeding edge of Western consciousness through the archipelago, and the islands were named for Philip II of Spain. For 300 years the Spanish Empire stood over the islands, rapping on knuckles with Catholicism, Spanish language and custom. The islands were only free of the one empire when it surrendered them unto the United States, a forced courtship that lasted half a century until the Philippines’ finally regained their sovereignty on July 4, 1946.
Between colonialism and trade, much of the Philippines’ cultural tapestry was shredded and repurposed. Here in the museum, rooms full of coins and jewelry and textiles once worn by and passed between white hands attempted to stitch that tapestry back together, but I was really not sure how it could be done without those seams being more important than the fabric itself. I left the building bemused and threaded through the financial district while sat wide in the eye of another such seam.
Nearly every city and country road in the Philippines is beset by the bull rush of lumbering, broad-backed jeepneys, the commonest form of public transportation. American military jeeps, discarded after World War II, were resurrected and stretched to hold upwards of two dozen people on lengthwise benches. As cluttered on the inside with passengers as they are on the outside with garish layers of decals, posters, signs, lettering and aftermarket schlock, these vehicles take their heredity lightly and provide a uniquely pinoy solution to dual concerns of traffic and thrift.
I rode the Jeepney to as close to my hotel as I could get. The Manila metropolitan area is comprised of sixteen verging cities; I was staying in Makati, a wealthy business district that also harbors the city’s notorious red light district. Burgos Street is, on one side, the gateway to this red light district and on the other, the approach to my hotel. I had read the reviews, googled the hotel and its environs, and generally done some research already concerned with the neighborhood. But I found my first morning to be invigoratingly inviting. I opened my day a block downhill at a patio table eating eggs and drinking Coke. I drank deeply of the misty mix of the city air, trying to develop a taste for this liqueur of urban atmosphere. It was fresh and optimistic, like the air around a car wash, vaguely sweet but short of appallingly artificial. The activity was all obligatory: deliveries, sanitation, and the café security guard, dressed in peaked cap, epaulets and a pistol, who bruskly staved off a man trying to sell me a knockoff iPhone. It was all very underwhelmingly—though warmly—routine.
But the short January afternoon had run out during my ride and I arrived to an evening already tinted amber with taillights and neon. The street was nearly unrecognizable, murky with the activity of a new phenomenon of people filling every chair and curb and flat surface, all of them apparently watching me. A pair of young women or an approximation thereof emerged from the caliginous ether, quickening with prospect and chirping their best siren call. Sir, massage! Sir, massage! I dodged into a group of young children who attached themselves like sweaty remoras, eager to clean my gills with unabashed slippery hands. Clutching my pockets and desperately trying to remember which contained my passport, I barked over broad strides to find the cross street gorged and shiftless on a belly full of taxis. Sir! Sir! A man pushed a box of Cialis into my face. I brushed past a biding taxi and hurried up the steps to my hotel.
Dammit. I still needed something to eat.
I walked uphill and squirted myself out the backend of Burgos St and traced a comfortably dull side street where people cooked food on a sidewalk grill. I prowled onward for either food or beer, stopping at the first establishment with enough evidence of activity. I stepped through loiterers up the stairs and the doorway ruptured at my touch with blinding pink light. I probably wouldn’t find a burger here but I maybe I could see about that beer.
I turned a corner and fought through fuschia to a long aisle, bar on one side and tall tables on the other. Somewhere inside the glaring disco starlight a dozen voices trilled hello sir! The aisle ended at a four semicircular booths, red or something like it, and a large stage under a scaffold and pink-gelled spotlights. I curled into a tufted vinyl bend and as soon as my ass hit the cushion a girl was seated on either side of me. Huh.
I blushed nothing under the red lights though my face flushed warmly. Hi sir what’s your name? said left while her hand rapidly dusted my knee. I said what for no reason other than the blood ringing in my ears. What the hell. A woman appeared over my shoulder, not dressed in short stretchy numbers like these girls, but in slacks and a blouse with a cravat. She held a small pad in front of her. I ordered a San Mig Light, the only beer I’d seen on this island. Sir, drinks for the girls? I hadn’t really thought of that but I looked at them for an answer. Their smiling faces were unchanged. Sure, I said, still looking between them for a reply, but the other had already left without taking their orders. What the hell?
Left asked me another question or something and right looked coyly—or disinterestedly—askance. My head swimming in florid spotlights and floundering in the depths of my folly, I absently grabbed the black bound book from my waistband and drew a long thick pen from my pocket. With a palm holding a blank page I unscrewed the pencap and dropped it in my shirt pocket. I couldn’t afford inspiration so I started drawing the first potted plant I saw and answered questions through my line of observation. The woman came back and set down our drinks, a San Mig Light and two cocktails in bold primary colors. She handed me her pad and a pen and pointed at a box under the foot of a tallied column and then disappeared with my signature. From my left came a question: Are you here for the show, Sir?
Before I had sketched every stalk and leaf, the pink lights dimmed and stage-bound spots were brought up. The girl on my left rubbed my knee in anticipation. Bass pulsed and a line of girls marched out in leotards and fishnets and sprang on cue into jerking, bumping, stomping and strutting choreography. The show was actually quite good, the girls were well-practiced, the costumes were remarkably intricate and the dancing surprisingly sophisticated. At the end we all applauded and left patted my knee excitedly.
After another round of beer and cocktails, a third and fourth girl sat in my booth or the one adjacent, and cooed some sort of question. My puzzled craning was enough to summon the cravatted woman again along with her Sir, drinks for the girls? I was way out of my league here. After signing my receipt and folding into it a large bill, I saluted the ladies and chased my pink shadow out of the club. I ran with my wallet in hand like a cell phone in a pool, back to my room to take stock of my losses.
I lay on my bed with a head full of static from beer and bass and adrenaline, like hands fresh off a lawnmower. My remaining bills, folded in half and half-counted, lay on the bed beside me. The night was exciting for its novelty, for its strangeness, for all the mysteries teasing investigation. It was frivolous and fun. It had met most of the conditions of a rewarding experience. It was unexpected, somewhat frightening and offered many layers for reflection. But for the second time today I had retreated hotelward with a vague unease about my trip. Had I sat in that club like a galleon at port, flying an awkward flag, with an empty hold hungry for local gold? Was I here to take, was I here trading surpluses for another’s labor, was my leisure and curiosity justified? Could my haul be returned, maybe someday four hundred years from now, presented under glass to the pride of grandchildren’s grandchildren, spotlit gold and pink to the pulsing narration of a bloodline’s deliverance?
Way too much turmoil for an empty stomach.
I’d been avoiding this place. I’d walked past now a half dozen times, each time refusing to look in the windows, head locked forward and eyes blurring against curiosity. I frowned even, when walking past. But now I was disarmed. I had no recourse. No backup. Room service was finished and this was the only place still serving food at this time of night.
The entrance to The Filling Station was an airless little shop, two paces of ice cream and soda and cigarettes. The stairway may have been larger yet, but it was cluttered with historical newspaper clippings and framed photos from the US’ most frameable decades. Elvis, the Beatles, Little Richard and Clint Eastwood in black and white ushered the way to the Station proper, which was immediately stifling for such a wide open space. Except for the checkerboard floor, every surface was polished and red and chrome. Like a lacquered incandescent fruitcake the place glowed with effort but without taste. It was pure Coca-Cola, nostalgia with too much sweetener; it was pure malt powder, a sentimental and pointless ingredient.
The hostess, in a pleated skirt, broad collar and a checked apron, collected me by the life-sized fiberglass Marilyn and sat me in a booth next to the fiberglass Superman. The menu was all pizzas and burgers and philly cheesesteaks. I ordered a Coke and sighed heavily.
Two young women dropped into the seat in front of me. Sir Matt? the one asked and had she been patting my knee I’d have recognized her but she was across the table reading the menu in a t-shirt and khaki shorts. The other girl clicked her cell phone. The red skirted waitress came and the girls ordered, or maybe pointed at typos on the menu, I couldn’t be certain. The waitress left without taking my order.
Billiards? asked the girl who asked questions, the word a caricature of syllables. They stood up from the booth and flanked a table that wallowed in red-gold beer light on its stout carved legs. Play pool with the American, huh? I chalked a cue and apologized, but I’d forgotten their names. They racked and I broke and they said their names and I apologized again over solids and stripes for fleeing the club. Thank you, I said, yes I was enjoying Manila. I’d been to the American military cemetery, you know, the largest such cemetery outside of the US? But no, I hadn’t had much time for anything else and I didn’t know where to go anyway.
I took my second beer in the other room, the one behind the glass door, the smoking section. I guess someone did their research after all. Lily’s side of the conversation was all brown eyes and crimping lips and we waited for Jasmine to grab some beers, but she came back with a giant stuffed bunny. A waitress poodled up with baskets of appetizers, and we had potato skins and lumpia and cigarettes in courses. We flipped through my travel sketchbook which so far was all listless airport gates and tray tables in various positions. Unfortunately I hadn’t been able to draw much of the city, at least much worth seeing.
We spent a few cigarettes writing various Tagalog translations in the back pages of my sketchbook. Good morning, good evening, happy, drunk. I spent a beer sketching a giant stuffed bunny while they poked cell phones and considered one last lumpia. Lily peeked under the lid of her cigarette pack, then shoved an abrupt sigh at Jasmine. I think it was the first time I’d seen her look directly at anyone all night. Jasmine replied with a tangle of Tagalog, that gutteral damask that lay like creased silk in the air between us; Lily spoke only in hums and purrs, and I’m glad I hadn’t heard English blight it like a word from our sponsors.
“Okay. Let’s go.”
Jasmine grabbed her giant stuffed bunny and yanked Lily with physical urgency. I stood and slid my sketchbook slowly into my waistband, comprehending about as little as I had all night. The girls headed to the stairs and our waitress appeared in the glass doorway to hand me the check. A quick review of the sum seemed reasonable for a half dozen beers, a few plates of appetizers, and a giant stuffed bunny. I folded into it a large bill and handed it back to her.
I slid down the stairs three at a time, heavy on the rail. I smiled at the woman belted behind the counter and caught up with the girls just as a cab did. Jasmine got in first, Lily after me, and the driver pulled back into traffic. On that note, where exactly were we headed?
Jasmine turned, her shoulder pressed into mine. “We’re going to show you the real Manila.”
The taxi pitched around the streets of Makati, where in the last dark hour young ladies in spangled skirts grouped on corners for the walk home. We in the back rocked to sleep, head-shoulder-head like bad comedy. Jasmine lifted her head and drowsily warned one of us to stay awake to watch the driver and she lasted three more turns. I didn’t even try.
The taxi dropped us at the Plaza de Roma before day broke. I rubbed the back of my head vigorously but yesterday still clung heavily about my neck reeking of lager. We walked on flagstone between leafy shrubs to a large fountain where couples and small groups began to collect like lazy dew along the stoney rim. The king on top of the dais grabbed my attention and pointed from beneath billowing folds of cast bronze toward the large cathedral walling the square to the south.
The Manila Cathedral was a heavy rectangle of stone scars, swallowing its thousand sorrows through toothy arches. It stood, resilient but not proud, against the malice of time, seven times built and only six times destroyed. With war and quake and fire in its mortar the cathedral marked the center of old Manila in a time before industry bloated the city in wobbly orbit beyond its original stone walls and out to the ends of the isthmus. The teal-capped dome pushed like a backstroke into the warm golden pool of morning and we sat and watched it get wet. In ten minutes it was full daylight, and we left wide awake as though watching the rising sun were some larger denomination of sleep.
I followed the two girls under unreasonably damp scaffolding, over skeleton and carapace, down streets narrow as alleys where the stones swelled higher than the curbs. Cables and lines tangled the air above us, hanging low from high places. The buildings here were only a couple stories tall but long as city blocks and at the end of one we stepped into a frank but unassuming restaurant. The dining room was large and mostly empty and we sat alone in a corner. I asked for a Coke from a waitress who seemed otherwise uninterested in my input, but I was happy to let the girls decide. In the center of the room a waiter clicked through karaoke menus and we sat in silence, or we held conversation it all felt the same. Large bowls yawed to their seat on the table in front of me while an interpretation of the Righteous Brothers filled the room. In the first bowl was sinigang. Uncouth cuts of beef and bone steamed in a grey broth with chilis and dark leaves. The scent was sharp and athletic, made sour and musty with tamarind. In the next bowl, kare kare sat static in a thick yellow gravy that alluded strongly to peanut butter. I began to crush a dome of rice and before I could be confounded by the oxtail on my plate I looked up to shouts of Sir! Sir! being cast in my direction. With a navy shirt buttoned around his solid frame, shirt sleeves rolled a few turns up from his wrists and a towel over his shoulder, the waiter hammed pleadingly at me from the center of a ring of giggling tables. After a lyric more, I obligingly set down my silverware, wiped my mouth with my napkin and crossed the room to take his hand. He crooned on one knee then pulled me close, swaying with eyes closed while mourning my loss of that loving feeling. We shared the mic like Disney spaghetti until he spun around in an affected swoon. When the song finished, he asked for a kiss on the cheek, but turned into my peck, drawing hoots and laughs from the diners. I returned to our table and ate kare kare and sinigang too flustered to remember which was which. For dessert, we were brought the filipino favorite halo halo, a gaudy trove of color and taste profiles. In a large stemmed and fluted glass, crushed ice was crowned with purple yam ice cream, coconut, flan, jackfruit, hard candy, rice and cheese, and I’m pretty sure I saw kidney beans in there too.
I left handful of pesos and then some under the check and met the girls at the door. My belly tried to make sense of its task while we wandered to a nearby park. The entrance seemed like a mistake of scale, like the plans were printed three hundred percent too big. RIZAL PARK was spelled eight feet tall. The grassy Burnham Green paved chartreuse until almost the bay. At one end a massive map of the Philippines was built in concrete and canal, and at the other end we walked under green tiled arches in the Chinese Garden, where pond scum slept on lily pads in still pools of water and idle transients floated atop every bench and low sill. We ate our fill of fried foods from wheeled carts and when I’d sketched my fill of arches and statues and trees we daisy chained into the open back end of a rolling jeepney.
Though the vehicle was about three people and one giant stuffed bunny too full, it was now a respite from the hot noontime sun. I leaned back, a head above everyone in the vehicle, and listened to the road through the sheet metal bulkhead. I’d have dozed off if it weren’t for a sudden soft pattering on my knee. “So how did you like the real Manila?” Jasmine whispered under the bulk of my eyelids. Elbow into neighboring shoulder I pulled my sketchbook from my waistband and flipped through my morning studies. They all seemed like a lifetime ago, evident but only vaguely familiar, like a story too many times told. But the patting on my knee came like a commercial break in my daydream, a two-minute tithe of air time, an uncomfortable reminder that we returned to the financial district.
I folded my book and exhaled, and I held my lungs empty for a moment. So where exactly was Real Manila? Was it in some ancient fortress safe from tourists and queuing taxis, at the end of a labyrinth of traffic and tricycles? Or had I first found it in under the Marilyn’s blown skirt and Elvis’ wiggly knees, in Mobilgas oil drums and Shell fuel pumps, upstairs in the smoking section of the Filling Station? Real Manila was right there in that diner, dressed in Americana or whatever schtick sets it apart from the rest of Real Manila, and my own curiosity was her sales pitch. I came in looking for beauty and adventure and insight, a self-conscious conquistador sorry for centuries of coersion. But conquistadors skip out on the bill. The least I could do was to sit through the sales pitch, listen to the commercial. Because the city was selling me something. And tomorrow, sitting in a hammock under the bleeding gold of sunrise on a sea half a world away from anything I’ve ever known, I would look toward the place where this island once sat and finally see the lie: that I could ever find something before it was sold to me. And I don’t know what I was hoping to find, myself or some virgin-faced child of a wicked history, but whether I chose to believe or not I was part of this great commerce. By some mistake of fortune I was here in this place, my surplus packed like granola bars in my bag.
On the bumper of the jeepney, we swapped hasty hugs and goodbyes. “Lunch?” I asked into a plume of exhaust. But Lily just smiled from the side of her mouth and Jasmine wanted to be home waiting with that giant stuffed bunny when her son got home from school.