On Manila

29 Sep

They would always warn you about the streets of Manila. They would tell you about the piles of garbage huddled in every other street corner and the flies large as well-nourished beetles that live in them. They would describe to you how the sidewalks are covered in spit and used oil and ambulant vendors and wooden carts and urine and graffiti and vagrants and excrement and the occasional well-dressed evangelist handing out pamphlets about knowing Jesus.

They would give you eyewitness accounts of the most sensational deaths that happened there – hacked with a butcher’s knife by the husband who caught his wife and her lover in flagrante delicto, ran over by a drunk SUV driver, leapt from the 9th story of a condo after failing the bar exams, gunned down by supposed vigilantes for alleged drug use.

This laundry list of the horrors of Manila’s streets is supposed to strike the fear of God in you. But you have also read much of the city’s history and a lot of Nick Joaquin to give the country’s capital the benefit of the doubt. And after much walking and jeepney-hailing, and tricycle-riding, and LRT-boarding, you come to know the city on your own terms. And you find out that this is what they don’t tell you:

That it will always allow you to stumble upon pleasant surprises – a hole-in-the-wall owned and run by a Taiwanese woman who makes the best dumplings in the same room where you eat them; a tiny pub where you can get a beer for 30 bucks and when you try to order some food at 5 pm, you’ll be told that they have no food available yet because their cook is still buying ingredients at the market; a National Artist’s quaint bookstore that holds more relevant titles than the large bookstore chains.

That when you get caught in a sudden rainstorm, there will always be a shop or a café or a store or a hotel or a church that you could seek shelter in.

That even when the streets swell with murky floodwater, people will always find ways to help you stay dry – makeshift rickety bridges, kariton and padyak rides, well-spaced crates that serve as islands – all for a few pesos, of course.

That if you find yourself lost in the labyrinth of streets, you can always choose to keep going either left or right because one way will inevitably lead you to the train while the other will lead you to the sea.

That the sea holds ships from far-off places on its surface and stories of war in its belly, and every afternoon, it swallows the sun while it bleeds in hues of yellow and orange and red and pink and purple.

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