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The Philippines has a fractal beautiful coastline spread over thousands and thousands of islands with some of the World's best snorkelling and scuba diving some gorgeous beaches and has ecologically rich jungle and enough rice paddies to produce much of its own rice. That is the famous, relaxed countryside. However, in the infamous capital Manila, if you care anything about politics, democracy, logic, honesty, economics, or the utility of the human brain, you are going to feel a bit sad. Many businesses may look to be well run, the kids look happy, the women are really friendly, beautiful and fit into sexy jeans even into middle age. the sky scrapers and malls are being built but even these successes, on reflection, seem to reinforce the idea that life is very cheap here. I would never want any country to be as expensive, neat, and neutral as Switzerland but it seems the capital of The Philippines is underachieving remarkably given its historic chances.
Arriving late at night at the airport I was pleased that taxis were really cheap and plentiful but the grinding noise from the worn out wheel bearings drowned out some of the wisdom and conversation offered by my driver. I did still manage to hear him pointing out the different Japanese Karaoke bars along the airport road and the price structures that went with the level of youth and beauty of the "Guest Relations Officers" (female university students preferred) and a few shopping malls but nothing properly historic or municipal. Near Midnight, I saw some 7-year-old kids jump off the back of a Jeepney bus in the middle of a highway and bounce over the concrete dividers very expertly relaxed and apparently happy! The next day, in the middle of a huge thunderstorm, I saw two more kids, maybe 3-years-old, strip off all their clothes and lie completely flat back in a big puddle in the entrance to an old shopping mall - they were just giggling with no adults around anywhere but again somehow the cars managed to avoid killing anyone, then honked their horns and the kids ran off. I had my camera in my hand but as often happened in Manila, I didn't want to take photos of anything so sad or dangerous.
The bars sell fine cheap beer but gaunt old ladies or pairs of young mums with newborn babies come by begging often enough that even an anaesthetized seasoned Indian traveller would start to feel upset. Walking back to the hotel after beers involves passing a steady line of men and women sleeping without sheets or bedding on street furniture or compacted inside tricycle rickshaws on the side of the road. During the day, I saw some of the homeless being "house" proud and sweeping the leaves off their family's little patch of hardened mud along the side of the main coast road. I took some time out from beers at 1 am one morning and tried to get a happier view across the China Sea sat on the promenade beside some fun multi-coloured light columns. I was only hassled by a few guys offering female company or cigarettes and I enjoyed the people-watching when an intelligent well-dressed guy started up a conversation from many metres away further up the sea wall. We talked about politics for more than 5-minutes before he politely asked if he could move to just a metre or two away. We chatted for a further 30 minutes about the problems that I had seen and he said he was sorry that my first impressions were so sad. I wondered if he was some religious person looking to help less fortunate folk or a social worker type looking for an external opinion but as we were parting he said that our conversation was more interesting and important to him than maybe I had realised and then apologised again because he was going to feel bad because he said he had to ask one more thing: he had no cash at all and could I give him some ! Intelligent, well-dressed middle-managers begging after sophisticated conversations - weird ! What do the professional jobs pay here ? I said sorry and just walked off.
The shopping malls are splendid but every single entrance has token male and female guards pretending to search locals shopping bags and just ignoring my entire full backpack and waving me past. The threat of crime must be real because the cash delivery vans looked tougher than anything the British Army has in Afghanistan and the shopping mall guards carried pump-action shotguns or pistols. I bought some biscuits to bring back to Singapore for my colleagues and the smiling cute shop assistant said not to worry if I did not have the 50 cent coin and handed back my change. I looked twice because I noticed that I was not 50 cents richer than expected, but exactly 100 Pesos short-changed. I smiled right back with a more quizzical look and then she fluttered her lashes and slipped the missing hundred into my hand without feigning any surprise. I should have shouted but I just laughed instead - so Manila!
In my first morning in my hotel, I couldn't get any hot water so showered and mentioned the problem when I was going out. Each hotel floor has two stewards so they took charge and two more guys offered me another room with the same problem and another was fixing an external air-con compressor and another maintenance man said that he had just changed the heating element in the hot water tank and all would be well within the hour. All the room changes and investigations took time and my "super-deluxe" room at twice the price listed in my Rough Guide did not seem full of Spanish charm or value -especially after I had to kill a few cockroaches (honest this is an expensive - best recommended category hotel) so I mentioned the problems to the front desk and suggested that if they wanted to make a gesture, they could give me an hour of free Internet access. The request would be passed to the manager I was told. When I returned, the receptionist explained to the manager in front of me and the manager got mad and exclaimed that there was no hot water problem - it was never cold and the four men who fixed it did not exist ! Truth - who cares -this is Manila !
Happily, there is still a beautiful sculpture park "Lunetta", a nice art museum with woven gold royal belts (I was the only person on the whole floor: not one other guest or guard), a small zoo (with chickens live and ready to eat for the snakes) and a pretty old town "Intramuros" with a few university buildings, cobblestones and some colourful shop houses with advertising signs and bright laundry but most of the down-town is a hazy fume-filled urban jungle but that does give some added intensity to the colourful red sunsets along the river. The sea stinks of sewage and washing powder but there are guys in it fishing every day with nets and stakes in the shallow water. Outside the centre, the sea breeze is more pleasant. I discovered the best bike shop in the World called Unison industrial trading in Chinatown/Binondo area of Manila so I bought some new mountain bike forks - in passing as one does if one thinks owning 4 bikes is normal - oops!
I was caught in one big afternoon storm which was just fun but Manila was hit by
a typhoon in July which killed over 100 people and another typhoon is
due to hit the same main island (Luzon) a little further North
tomorrow. It is not just any normal typhoon, it is now in the highest,
most dangerous category of super typhoon. I was lucky to fly back
today after just my quick 3 night trip !
The United States fought and then bought The Philippines off Spain before setting it free with democracy in 1946 - the first country in Asia to try the wacky system. Unfortunately, the people are too nice or the politicians are too nasty and democracy has not worked well. Marcos shot a returning president the moment that he stepped off a plane returning back after exile - I saw a film about it called "The last flight of Ninoy Aquino". There must be corruption throughout the economy and too few auditors to point out all the places that it happens so it all seems normal, even in the police. Some of the attractive women in the bars are a obviously too friendly but share good stories for the price of a drink. Allegedly, the police enjoy checking that the these women have enough money with them but not all the money is returned and if the women have none, then they must provide special police services or are locked in jail for 14 days for vagrancy. One woman said she has been locked up three times for vagrancy for not cooperating with the police !
I stayed out of trouble of all sorts but did enjoy the food (especially the beef kalderita), the beer and all the jokey attention and shared insights into Manila and got away fine. I did try one karaoke bar near my hotel in town not by the airport but the Japanese still ruled the place and sang very badly, I felt sorry for the girl who sat next to me: she looked beautiful but bored because I had unlimited drinks for 300 Pesos (cheaper than one beer in a Singapore pub) and I didn't buy one for her because of my general level of discomfort. She said that was fine but I felt rude being so awkward and mean but I drank quickly and left so she was soon free to wait for a Japanese business man on expenses. I stuck to the Cuban, and rock bars after that - much better singing.
I hope the super typhoon is not super bad. If I had had four nights, I would have had enough time to travel away to the beautiful coast leaving just one night in the capital - plenty enough to get the picture. The British government is offering a travel warning for Manila as there is a specific Islamic bombing threat - take care.
In Manila, all the things a typical European would trust: government, police, big branded retailers, church, business men, hotel staff, are the very things that you should be suspicious of and the ordinary shoppers on the street are the ones who seem most safe and helpful. Maybe having the USA kick start one's democracy is not as useful as one might have first supposed ?All 2010 Manila, Philippines photos
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