(Note: Hey guys and gals! Having a great time, back in my Singapore digs. I have most of the images of my final days in Manila up at the front because Tumblr was having maintenance problems and I was unable to upload them throughout. However, I’ve post all of the images I have of Manila right here for you. I hope you enjoy part two of my stay in Manila, as well. It goes without saying that it is a place that touched me deeply. Thanks for letting me share my experiences with all of you).
Unbeknownst to them, Hazel and Gino had actually brought the attention of the Quezon City bombing up to me. That shocking revelation was confirmation of what my dreams from the night before had alluded all along. I had put up a front and pretended to already know about it, hiding my shock of the tremendous realization that a bomb actually went off while I was in town. I kept relaying that terrifying fact over and over again in my head, all the while hoping they would NOT catch on to the fear I was facing. Needless to say, I was truly terrified going out with them that night, but at the same time proud of myself for temporarily forgetting about it up until then. For some reason, going out clubbing reminded me of the bombing all over again, having flashbacks of 9/11 where it was suggested that terrorists targeted us, among other reasons, because of their perceptions of “Western hedonism.” And Makati, a significant party town in Metro Manila, was bombed just weeks before I had arrived Manila. Well, at least we weren’t going to Makati, the penultimate scene of the bombings.(A bit of a fatalist, I know. But can you blame me?).
On the way to the club, I was in and out of thinking about this recent terrorist bomb (one that blew up the Philippine congressional building, apparently killing two prominent politicians). But the exceptional and gracious company that Gino and Hazel were, it became increasingly easy to think of mostly letting go all apprehensions (like Ellen said, don’t let it spoil your good time). Helping break all of my senses of ultimate fear however, I loved talking to the both of them on the way to the club. It was easy to feel right at home (and safe) with them. And it was Hazel who especially made me feel right at home with the both of them; with being in Manila; with being among the real Filipino people. Yes, as Hazel said, I was indeed home (bombings and all).While we searched for a parking space, I began to also understand why most of the Filipino American community is so wrong about this captivating country: looking around, we were driving along a rather flashy, upscale part of the city, sharply dispelling the myth of the “from the sticks” Filipino that snooty Fil-Ams tend to inflict. They foolishly have got it so wrong: this scene was right out of Western civilization, with a modern, posh atmosphere that reminded me of a cross between Palos Verdes and Sunset. After a rough minor setback at the entrance, we would eventually be able to enjoy our VIP pass and into the club for hip-hop night at Embassy, a premiere hotspot and exclusive Manila watering hole for the beautiful, young, prominent, and the like. Gino walked in, and the popular guy he is, was greeted time and again by people he knew. And in a bit of a small-world wonder, I also ran into someone I was acquaintances with… who also knew Gino! In fact, he and Gino go way back, as they were high school classmates. Wild! Also, Gino pointed out a tall, rather strange-looking girl at the club who he mentioned was a contestant of Philippine’s Next Top Model. She was tall and creepy, but had a fantastic, edgy look to her. I was totally feeling it; she was my Asian Grace Jones. I wish I would have found an opportunity to shoot with her, too. More models, athletes, and beautiful people filtered in and out of the club, all the while big-shot Gino waving and high-five-ing them from time-to-time. He is the man!
The three of us danced while the best hip-hop mash-ups made the walls throb in that dimly-lit hot spot, with Hazel in the middle of us as we danced (and who definitely knew her place on that floor). We were pelted with hot ash from nearby smokers from time-to-time, something I really hated. Of course, I wondered why they allowed smoking in the club. Even the DJ was smoking it up. A group of dancers also battled it out near the center of the floor. Gino explained to me a refreshing bit of trivia about the troupe: they were a Christian-based dance team. Nice!After the fun of dancing to the point of fatigue, Gino allowed me to pull the car around to pick up Hazel from the front of the club because of the heavy rain that, by then, poured down those cats and dogs to a pulp. I then realized that I had not been behind the wheel in over half a year, but I was more than pleased to do my bit. After we picked her up, Hazel and I then switched places about a half mile away and the two drove me back to the “hometel.” I stumbled into my room, got undressed and crashed onto the comfortable twin bed. And at about 3:30am in the morning, it was not hard for me to fall right to sleep in the relentless humid evening (which meant a naked night for moi).
The next morning, sitting in my much-too-familiar but comfortable Starbucks setting, I spent most of that time looking out the window, sipping my coffee while people-watching all through the afternoon. I was somewhat enthralled at all the natives traipsing by, some of whom were begging children, with no shoes, their hands constantly stretched out while people ignored their requests. It was hard for me not to think of my relatives in Southern California, thinking of how good we Americans have it compared to the struggles of everyday life for the less fortunate here. There was a strange kinship I was feeling with these natives, something that I constantly felt the need to tear away from. I had to: it would do me no good to have a complete emotional investment on particularly the faces of the begging children who haunted my thoughts; emotional investment… emotional toll.It wasn’t long before Gino came by to pick me up for yet another day of fun sightseeing. As we walked to the car, Gino (the night in shining armor that he is) handed a young beggar some money as he walked alongside us. What a generous guy.
As my official hosts, He and Hazel took me to a fun marketplace after we drove by Gino’s agency to get paid (the working model that he is). Upon arriving at the mostly open-air market/mall, I felt I was getting good exposure from commercial Manila: everywhere, there were mall-like vendors selling food items from Filipino provinces. It was a wonderful cultural mish-mash of several different variations of foods, pastries and other finger-food items that were both colorful and fetching. I wanted to buy something, but I wasn’t sure what to buy: I had no idea what most of the items were! We moved on to search for a good restaurant to take in an early dinner and decided on a fantastic establishment. Again, we had the tasty Sisig, as well as a kind of tart soup of fish and vegetables that gave a wonderful, strong flavor to everything. Again, every entrée came in an oval hot plate dish that seemed a universal culinary staple at every restaurant we went to. Needless to say, we fully enjoyed ourselves, sitting at one of their outside tables, enjoying the first set from a group of acoustic performers. I couldn’t help but check out the stunning scene: there were rows of illuminated balls of lights hanging over us from the vaulted ceilings, as the open-air space provided a cool breeze once in awhile. It was easy to forget about the high level of humidity from where we were sitting, as others enjoyed their dinners, amidst revelers strolling by in the sweet early Manila evening. During dinner, Hazel mentioned a good friend of hers would be joining us, which pleased me, but made me a little nervous and stage fright. Hazel revealed she was a sweet person, so I trusted she would be. I’m sure it would be fine (I just had to remember to keep my social anxiety at bay).After the delicious dinner, both would later treat me to some Halo-Halo, a Filipino dessert that was like a cup of Hawaiian shave-ice, but doused with a kind of milk (coconut, maybe?), and was well-layered with various kinds of sweet beans, sugar, and jellied coconut slices in the bottom. Wow, it was refreshing, and strangely familiar (had I tasted this before?).
Just as I was taking an embarrassing swig of the stuff, my ugly trap wide open to take a bite of this traditional Filipino dessert, in walked a very attractive Filipina gal and greeted Hazel. Feeling like a fool, I tried to recover, immediately checking myself and acting as civilized as I could (hoping this gal wouldn’t notice the ass I was making of myself). It was Hazel’s good friend, a part of Hazel’s female posse. And Hazel was right: she was so sweet and amazingly friendly from the get-go. It was easy to see why they were friends, with the signature sense of cordialness and sunny predisposition emanating from the both of them. These were quality women. I was amused at the fun story she was telling of Hazel catching her on-again/off-again living it up at Embassy the night before, in spite of telling her that he would instead be retiring for the evening (haha, BUSTED!).Both Gino and Hazel treated her to Halo-Halo as well, the two of us politely slurping and noshing on the icy concoction while we hung out.
Continuing to be the devoted host that he was, Gino would later treat us to a movie night. The movie of choice: Beowulf. This meant a trip to yet another fabulous part of Manila, a fact that made me feel like mentally sticking my tongue out at my snooty Filipino American community (liars! The Philippines is not entirely the sticks at all). The (Makati?) area – a modern, contemporary mall-like fortress that boasted fine retail shops, interesting specialty stores, and even nightclubs at the top floors - was right out of Southern California mall-dom. It was like being in Orange County! It was also really fun for them to show me yet another part of Manila, where Gino also worked as a club show host in that same sprawling and truly impressive grid of modern perfection. Wow, the two of us having something sort of in-common, as well (I, being of the cheesier, pageant-host sort. Haha!).It was fun being there… but dare I let the thought of the bombings take over, as Gino showed me the part of it needing reconstruction? Did I misunderstand, or was what I was being shown the place where the infamous bomb went off weeks before the Quezon City bombing? Do I even dare let my terror get the best of me yet again? I must have blanked out, not remembering a word of what he was telling me as he was pointing at this construction area about 50 meters from where we were standing, wondering if this was indeed where it all occurred. I was afraid to ask.
It was easy, though, to keep a poker face and let my fear subside in my sweet conversation with Hazel’s equally sweet and intelligent friend, helping me temporarily forget about my fears. An attorney, she told a humorous story of a previous client who once mistaken her for a paralegal or assistant. She did have an unassuming way about her, a sweet affectation that typified the same level of elocution often found in Asian women: sweet, yet dignified and amazingly elevating their attractiveness and femininity by it. It was easy to hit it off with her, conversationally. Often stumbling over my words, I diligently told her about my book, and like the lawyer that she was, had a lot of very insightful questions about the process that, in retrospect, I only hope I articulated successfully (sometimes, I tend to sound like I’m talking out of my ass).Gino, the man, bought our tickets and after a quick trip up into an elevated-kind of food concession area that sold some of the best specialty foods (such as healthy snacks that were actually tasty), we headed into the movie theater and mostly enjoyed the computer-generated epic fantasy film. The nerd that I am, I revealed that the Chickering version of the old English fable is one of my favorite books of all time; so, seeing the film was a special treat. After the film, though, we were all in consensus: we hated that all the actors in it were computer-generated!
We mainly laughed it off and headed back into the van to call it an evening. More of a fantastic conversation continued among the four of us, cutting our pleasant time together a little short though as we first took home Hazel’s beautiful/smart attorney frat sister, followed by a trip back to my Quezon City digs.My hands trembled as I opened the door to my room, feeling the delayed reaction from seeing, in person, where the more infamous Makati bombing took place. I can only imagine the horrible juxtaposition in what the scene must have looked like on that fateful day, in that otherwise ultra modern, posh atmosphere where we just were. Then, I began to think fondly of the tendency of the Filipino predisposition about living under terrorist threats; in general, about the bombings, one that seemed to remind me of a kind of somber reminiscence to 9/11: life, somehow, goes on. These terrorists have nothing on the enduring quality of the amazing Filipinos.
Am I an idiot for being so scared about this? Should I just do as the Romans do and just forget about this kind of modern-day reality that the Filipinos tend to react to in stride? All I know is that I didn’t want to let on that because of it, I was truly terrified in Manila… loving it, but still terrified.
DAYS FOUR AND FIVEBoth days consisted much of the same thing, but not to say that they were entirely boring. Having the opportunity to explore this captivating city (and equally captivating people) on my own, much of days four and five were spent trying to think ahead, moving on to the next country and to “work,” being in touch with contacts and all the while loving the idea of taking in the local Quezon City culture. I also loved the welcome distraction of being in touch with all of my new friends from all over the world through email while I again looked out the window, onto the busy Filipino streets, hanging out in coffee houses around the area. Being online did also take me mentally away, for a time, from my Quezon City surroundings, which was especially good so that I could forget the underlying and unspoken threat of bombings in my current city.
In spite of my fear, I was ironically falling in love with all of Manila.My emails and well-wishes I checked as I often sat window-side at some Filipino establishment like Figaros meant the world to me, with regards to helping to keep me grounded and feel secure. Lucja’s emails often put a smile on my face, feeling a bit of a connection with her and the things she was up to, away from her native Poland and in Lleuven, Belgium for school. In contrast, email correspondence with Mo remained painful, with the car situation back home often a reason to stress out (for both him and me). But at least Mo helped me forget about the bombings, at times; wow, who knew that Mo wrecking my car would have any kind of silver lining? Of course, the saving grace too was to be able to talk to Chris, as well. That especially meant everything. The constancy of hiding my terror of the situation made it easy with my welcome online distractions (and in retrospect, even with Mo).
Needless to say, most of my time was spent either online or checking out my Quezon City neighborhood…which was both personally valuable and disheartening at the same time. Sure, I kept myself plenty busy, but what struck me about the people of The Philippines was how peaceful they seemed to be in spite of the constant oppression they must have faced on a daily basis. Even the security guard at Starbucks had an impending, enduring way about him that he hid under a warm, pleasant smile while doubling his duties picking up trash and re-arranging parts of the establishments’ interior. Although I again hated being the focus of attention whenever I walked down the street (Am I that foreign-looking? Even in Manila, my pink flamingoes still showed), I was able to do some good people-watching and noticed how wonderfully sweet most of them were. There were vendors who walked along, selling various items – even traipsing by with full oil canvases of original pieces of work – and were polite as I shook my head. There also were beggars of all ages, children who were very sweet and actually very kind. I watched as, again, bare-footed kids had their hands out with the hopes that anyone would drop them some money to perhaps take home to their families. “Tulungan” was a word that I heard often, which I later found out meant “help.” It broke my heart. And for some reason, I began to see the face of my little niece Kihanna Lei embedded in their sweet faces. I couldn’t imagine any kind of life like that for her or anyone I knew and loved, for that matter. One night, I was greeted by the cutest kids who were selling fresh “Sampaguita”- flowered necklaces. Although I refused to buy one, I did ask if they were hungry. I fed them some donuts that I had just bought. The little boy (reminding me of Bryce) took one and ran off. The other, a girl of about six or seven, broke my heart terribly when she grabbed that jelly filled donut and responded with, “Tennnk eawww” in a long, drawn out and very sweet, thick Filipino accent (in my mind, it was Julie, at age six, haunting me). The helpless (more like useless) mentor I am, I choked up as I patted her head, told her to be careful out there, and walked back to my hotel room. And then, I reminded myself of how much more I could have done, and I felt even guiltier. I mean, would it have killed me to have just bought one of their necklaces or even drop them a couple of pesos – like Gino did the day before - to take home to their families?I hated myself.
However, there were other great opportunities for me to study more of the other locals. I am totally enamored by the Filipino people. And for me, none were as gracious as the small vendors and employees of places of business. I especially loved the fantastic level of customer service by these friendly, smiling faces. And everywhere I went, I was called, “Sir” (hell yeah!). The establishments always greeted people at the door, lording over us with elaborate welcomes as customers like me walked in. Occasionally, I caught the eye of some random local gal behind the counter, who would often strike more of a conversation with me than with the average customer. I loved the attention, and made it more fun for me to spend my leisurely last full two days on my own ;-)On my last night in Manila, I found myself in one of my favorite haunts: Coffee Bean. Again, I was able to enjoy the special attention I received from the super-friendly staff there (especially Priss, a sweet girl behind the counter who paid even more special attention to me). That night, I decided to work on more of my internet logistics, sipping on my cup of pink guava nectar. Out of the blue, a man approached me. “Are you Rome?” he cautiously approached, with a polite quality to his demeanor. He introduced himself as Gus, Gino’s relative. I was a bit embarrassed, as he caught me in the middle of being in a deep, philosophical self-trance as I blogged. It turned out that he lived nearby. After I had indicated to Gino where I would be that evening, he then mentioned it to Gus. After our meet and greet, what followed was a fun invitation to hang out with him at a local pub just steps away. Trying desperately to snap out of my writing trance, I gladly accepted! I told Gus that I would meet him there and that I would try to hurry with what I was doing.
However, it would take me another hour and a half before I could tear myself away from the computer. I was again embarrassed to see that Gus had returned to kindly check on my status, which gladly made me hurry even more. Gus left me there, with the hope (I’m sure) that I would get out of loser-ville and join the rest of the three-dimensional people. After all, what would be the better option: the opportunity for an evening to safely soak up local color or intently check things out online (you can never tell with me)? After a long, drawn out wait for the laptop to shut off, I swaggered down Tomas Morato Avenue and over to Popoy’s, a fun little pub where I was greeted by the super-friendly Gus and his awesome friends. I could again feel my social anxiety about to kick in before I introduced myself to everyone there. What a totally friendly group as well, consisting of Gus’ co-workers. It refreshingly dawned on me that my last night in Manila would consist of a night out with the local Filipino boys, shooting the busy Manila breeze on a busy and festive weekend.The avenue was one fun, bustling hot spot as we sat, street-side, while I was treated to San Miguel beer as we hung out. Of course, as boys do, objectifying conversations of women’s body parts and the like were high on the conversational docket. Although I was trying to get to know these cool local boys, there was an equally cool sense of letting go, letting ones’ hair down and taking in the usual and familiar all-guy b*lls*t that I had been missing. Thanks, Gus! I had totally forgotten what it was to be just another guy in the group, to just kick it and not have too much of a care in the world (at least for a brief moment). With the conversation cool and fun, there was the occasional added treat (or threat, however you see it as you will read) of being served local snacks that came to us periodically.
Of course, in keeping with the custom of eating whatever is offered, I was welcomed to try some of the local delicacies. It was something that everyone in the group braced for, anticipating my reaction of trying the first of these fine treats: Chicken Ass. Literally, served on a hot plate was a dish full of fried chicken’s backsides, something that took me back (no pun intended) to our fun barbeque stand just days before. Feeling increasingly buzzed from the local beer (fragrant, and lighter-tasting to the palate than your ordinary beer), I seized the opportunity of being borderline drunk and dove in to the exotic appetizers… and enjoyed it! I just had to forget what part of the fowl I was shoveling in my mouth, but it was the typical taste of chicken that was its saving grace. Aside from the Chicken Ass, I also enjoyed the feeling of eating boiled peanuts from a local passerby who was selling them. Some, though, were rotten at the core upon breaking the shell, which grossed me out more than eating the Chicken Ass. But, the best was yet to come; as I continued to take swigs from the beer being offered to me, I was drunk enough to the point where the encore of the meal was served to me… and I did not refuse: Duck Embryo. Balut – a staple among the Filipinos where at 18 days, a fertilized duck egg is boiled and enjoyed as a Merienda (small meal), was placed at the table, to which all eyes were on me as I broke my egg and began to drink the embryonic fluid, which tasted like sweet Chicken Soup. Then, more of the bird revealed itself as I tore into the shell more and more: I finally took one huge, quick swing at most of it, as all the guys watched. I felt as its tiny bones broke between my teeth and its wet feathers blended in with the yolkier parts of its innerts. Gus coached me all the while, selling to me the notion that it doesn’t taste all too bad. Although it took three bites to eat it all, there’s no denying that it’s not the otherwise delicious taste that’s gross about eating it: it’s what it actually is that is the grossest thing about it (sorry, Gus! But hey, thanks so much for the food, man. I did enjoy it, I assure you!).Luckily, I was drunk on that, my last time I will ever eat duck embryo.
It was time to call it an evening, and after we exchanged emails, I was ready to wobble back to my hotel. It took about fifteen treacherous minutes, as the world would not stop rocking, to reach my hotel room. In a drunken stupor, I comically packed for my flight the next day; which (one can imagine) wasn’t easy, grossed out as I belched, the flavor of beer and duck embryo repeating on me.
Surprisingly, I woke up right on time the next morning. This morning would be one last (but quick) opportunity for me to hang out with my Manila angels, Gino and Hazel. Accordingly I checked out, said goodbye to my friendly but super-shy and yellow t-shirt-wearing hotel attendants, and headed out the door while Gino carried my luggage. The two picked me up at a very reasonable time, giving us a good opportunity to have some breakfast at Gino’s first choice for a meal upon my first day (that was initially closed). In a word, this breakfast was super, with a bottomless coffee policy and a fresh meaty breakfast of Langonisa sausage served in a way that none of us had ever seen: in a kind of wooden-linked fashion of pillowy-squared bits, like a meat-chain. A pleasant surprise, Gus would join us on our little breakfast, post San Miguel beer and Chicken Ass. I was surprised that I wasn’t even hung over the night before. With the atmosphere pleasant and the conversation at a premium, my last Rome Around the World breakfast in Manila was sweet (literally, especially from the Langonisa), something I knew I was going to miss.
Eventually, we would drop off Gus at his house, just steps away from that good restaurant. Then, the three of us were well on our “goodbye” way. With my flight a little later than expected though, it also gave the three of us a chance to check out the Mall of Asia. As we took off to what is touted as Asia’s second biggest mall, I was treated to yet more of day-to-day Manila: jeepneys dangerously drove alongside us, with the blaring and over-sized billboards plastered all over the bustling landscape. There were people everywhere, in the pedestrian sidewalks and all over the litany of street vendors who lined the corners. A giant globe was prominently situated at the front of the mall as we neared its parking structure. And seemingly random, a beautiful, old Spanish-style church was prominently situated right next to the modern, oversized mall. It was an interestingly sharp juxtaposition of visual contrasts.Eventually, we parked and it wasn’t long before we took in the great mall. Security was on high alert, with separate sections for men and women to pass through as we were patted down upon entering. In typical fashion, it then reminded me of the bombings, something I couldn’t consciously escape in the back of my mind.
And although it was a treat to experience the Mall of Asia firsthand, my initial reaction was that it was, undeniably, a mall; nothing special, except for the beautiful and signature Filipino Christmas décor throughout. There was even a huge Christmas tree made of wood that towered over a good portion of the mall, something I was impressed by. I also was impressed by the aesthetic throughout: not only was it beautiful, but there was something distinctly, truly and undeniably “Filipino” about it. It was fun to check out the local men’s shops, too. At one point, we spent time in a culturally Filipino retailer, selling all kinds of purely culturally Filipino accoutrements.It was unfortunate that we would only be allotted about an hour-and-a-half before having to get back on the road and on to the airport. I hated the idea of leaving Manila, just as I felt a little bit like it was (from now on) comfortably home, in my heart. Maybe, it was the fact that we were in a mall, the quintessentially American haunt that they typically are; I’d like to believe it’s because, as Hazel said the day I met her, that I was indeed “home.”
Needless to say, I did not find it easy to say goodbye to Gino and Hazel at all as we neared the airport. I revealed to the both of them that Gus had offered to host me on my next visit to The Philippines, making it an even easier possibility to return. Still, it was hard to know that these two people – whom I have totally fallen in love with – are two of my most favorite whom I will no longer be in contact with on a daily basis.As I succeeded in not making the same mistake by turning around to see them one more time as I stepped into the airport, a bomb went off in my presence, right there at the airport.
But I was the only one who felt it.It was an internal bomb that went off, imploding from within me, one that obliterated every sense of my previous prejudices instilled in me by my Fil-Am compadres. I know, demonizing them would mean I would have to point the finger at myself too, as I now admit I too was once one of the culprits of narrow-mindedness, targeting a land that doesn’t deserve the unfair stigma that it’s inherited. There’s no way I could ever use that derogatory word, “FOB” ever again without seeing Hazel’s sweet face and Gino’s stoic presence. And still, it humbles me to know that in spite of it being a place that Filipino-America spits on, it still is a place that would still embrace each and every one of them unconditionally.
After I mentally brushed off the dust that settled from welcomingly obliterating my previous prejudices as I waited to check in, all I could think about was the huge contrasts I had witnessed throughout my stay in one of my most favorite places of all time. The Philippines is a bit of a conundrum, isn’t it? It’s modern yet run-down, beautiful yet ugly, safe yet dangerous……and for the rest of my life, there’s no way I will ever fall out of love.