“Your city is really colorful,” she says. It’s around 3:30 in the afternoon, and we — she, Joseph, Gina, and I — are in Roxas Boulevard, strolling around Baywalk. A calesawaits idly by and she climbs the carriage to pose for a picture with the driver – a reminder of her last day in the Philippines.
I’ve never really seen how “colorful” Manila is, in large part because I have grown used to it. The chaos usually appeals to adventurous tourists, but to me it had become annoying routines as I went to school and eventually to work. But acting as a guide around the city for two days lends a different perspective to a place I’ve already taken for granted. And her unabashed optimism and contagious sweetness make it easy to forget the faults of anything and focus on the good parts.
The air is cool with the sea breeze. Gina and Joseph walk closely behind as she stops to take pictures of the sea at different angles. We pause for a moment to take it all in: the empty benches, the yachts docked nearby, and cars roaring past the wide roads. She hums the theme song from Tangled, a movie about freedom and pursuing your dreams. Basically.
Then, suddenly, she spots a man working on his pump boat. The man lifts his head, sees us with her DSLR and invites us to take a picture with him. “Can you ask him if we can ride the boat?” she says.
I have been to Roxas Boulevard countless times before. Not only have I not ridden a pump boat in Manila Bay, I never even thought it’s possible. So I ask the man if we can. He nods. We bargain for a price and reach at P300 for a quick trip.
“It’s just a quick tour right?” I ask to make sure. She is in a deadline to be at our place by five. At seven in the evening, she will leave for Vietnam.
“Yes,” he answers in Tagalog, shooing off a drunk man who has come to pester her.
We clamber down a rickety ladder to the bottom of the promenade, and with the man acting as our lone stronghold, we board the pump boat. Manila Bay isn’t exactly a pretty bay in the strictest sense, but the ocean just has a way of soothing away all worries. The water is a bit brown and murky but the afternoon sky is on the verge of displaying the magnificent sunset the bay is famous for. The engine starts and we’re off for a few kilometers westward.
“We’re going to Vietnam!” I shout to her with the roaring engine drowning my voice.
“Yes we are!” she shouts back.
She arrived five days earlier as a translator for a group of Vietnamese who would receive their academic degrees from a local graduate school on Sunday. But the first time we meet is on the evening during a post-ceremony celebration, where she is an emcee and I’m one of the photographers. We talk and we find ourselves planning for a quick trip around Manila a few minutes later. Actually, there’s no plan; just a vague objective of hanging around for the whole day.
From the stories we exchange, I learn that she loves designing things and face-painting. Her passion initially led her to architecture but the degree had physics and math, which she hated, and eventually shifted to a course similar to multimedia arts. She also likes to learn foreign languages – especially French – which is how she learned English and got a part-time job as a translator. Because she doesn’t like being boxed in an office cubicle, she’d rather work in the field. She worked as a behind-the-scene photographer for a friend who shot a documentary all around Vietnam, and she plans to create her own film as well through a three-month course in Hanoi funded by Goethe-Institut, the German cultural center where I studied German. I tell her of my dream of traveling to Cambodia and Laos and we hatch a kind of a whimsical plan to do a photo essay about Indochina next year, right around Tet: Vietnam’s biggest holiday.
Our adventures actually started a day earlier, Monday, with a different set of companions touring Intramuros. Yet with a tight deadline to get back by four in the afternoon, and a lack of preparation for the intense sun, our trip was cut short. But she has still almost a whole day left and a strong desire to exhaust as much as she can from a city she’s seeing for the first time.
We meet at 10:30 the next morning and she is all dressed for our second day of adventure. My camera is with a friend who is having his graduation ceremonies so we have to rely on her much more advanced DSLR and much better visual skills. The other Vietnamese will tour Makati for the day, but she wants to check out BookSale – a bookstore my International Relations professor recommends – and have another tour of Intramuros. With Joseph and Gina, we set out to make every hour of the day count.
Our first stop is Harrison Plaza, an old mall a few minutes from the university where I’m taking my MA. HP, as the mall is sometimes called, was the first mall in the country and you would know, judging by its crumbling look and geriatric vibe. We have pancit Malabon in a food court for lunch, then we proceed to Book Sale. Apparently, she also gushes at the sight of books, except she pores over crafts titles while I tend to be pulled towards the travel section.
Manila Bay must have been a grand sight three decades ago, when the water was still clear and the air fresh. For an archipelago isolated from the Southeast Asian mainland by hundreds of kilometers of ocean, it’s fitting that a seaside city is chosen as the capital. But pollution, unplanned development, and mass migration from the provinces eventually took their toll: Manila is now one of the most polluted and densely populated cities in the world. And the unfortunate hostage crisis almost a year ago isn’t exactly the kind of advertisement it needs to polish its reputation
Late last year, in part because I was trying to cure my post-travel blues and in part because I wanted to do my share in improving Manila’s image, I set out around the city with a couple of people to do a photo essay. Yet for one reason or another, I couldn’t finish my project. Even for someone who has lived in the city almost all his life, Metro Manila’s immense size and unorganized structure make it hard even for the most efficient planner to navigate.
But this afternoon, despite a few rough patches, everything’s going well. Ironically, it’s when we don’t have a plan at all. As she says, we don’t have to think too much; we should just let things take their course. We have a term for it in Filipino: bahala na.
While the glorious days of Manila Bay is already far behind, the place still has its charms. Near the promenade’s northern end is the Rizal Park – still Luneta for most people – where a vast area of open space is being renovated as part of a tourism spruce-up job. The park doesn’t have the cachet it once had in the 1970s, but it still sees a lot of people, mostly students who use the place to do different extracurricular activities, and foreigners who come from the nearby district of Malate. In the area are two national museums and the National Library.
Not very far, at the other side of the Pasig River, is the district of Binondo, where, as its nickname Chinatown indicates, the ethnic Chinese population is settled. It’s a chaotic street with vendors plying their wares and throngs of people going about their business through narrow roads. The main — and perhaps most interesting — drag is Ongpin Street, which starts at the Arch of Goodwill in front of Quiapo Church and stretches all the way to another church, the Binondo Church.
At the other end of the Roxas Boulevard promenade is the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), perhaps the most famous product of former First Lady Imelda Marcos’ edifice complex. The CCP regularly hosts cultural programs throughout the year, most notably the independent film festival Cinemalaya every July. The area around the CCP is picturesque, drawing photography students from the nearby arts and design colleges. Beside it is Star City, a sort of theme park with a couple of decent rides.
“How do you say ‘happy’ in Tagalog?” she asks. We are now in a taxi to Intramuros.
“Masaya,” I answer.
“How come you have a lot of ‘ma’ in your words?” she asks. “Masaya, maganda, masarap…”
I pause for a moment to think about how to explain it. “We put ‘ma’ at the start of a noun to make it an adjective. So saya is ‘happiness’ but when you say masaya, it means ‘happy’. And ganda is ‘beauty’, but when you say maganda, it means ‘beautiful’.”
“Masaya ako,” she says, probably in the most general sense. “Best day of my life!”
She then turns to the driver. “Kuya, masaya ka ba?”
The driver looks at her through the rearview mirror, smiles, and nods.
The golden hour light lends a romantic – almost ethereal – vibe to Intramuros, which is celebrating its foundation day by letting visitors ride on tour carriages and enter museums free of charge. The main roads are busy as usual, but the alleyways and baluartes are empty except for a few students and couples. Just last year I did two photo shoots in the place but, today, without a camera and having just the basic goal of walking around the area reveals the soul of the place even more.
Intramuros (literally “within the walls”) was built in 1751 as the ruling enclave of the Spaniards and the seat of government of the Philippines. Its pentagon-shaped fortress at the southern bank of the Pasig River was a whole city in itself, containing government offices, banks, and schools. It’s a perfect souvenir of Spanish rule in Asia. The place was virtually flattened out in the second World War and while a tour around here still evokes a strong sense of history, there’s a sense of frustration from the lack of proper development, which the current administration tries to address.
She, Gina, Joseph, and I walk around one Spanish-era pavilion before going inside a building. “Wooooooow,” she lets out an inaudible surprise upon seeing the antiquated interiors and the warm rays of the sun slipping through the capiz windows. The setting is almost too perfect to be real. And it actually is, because it’s a restaurant and the interiors are really modern imitation, but it does give a very vivid picture of how the elites in the nineteenth century dined. Her photographic instincts go into overdrive. The staff reminds us that it’s a private place and we have to secure a permit to take pictures inside. But she gets away with the picture she wants and we exit the building.
“I have to return here,” she says as she takes one last shot of the restaurant’s façade.
“I hope you do,” I say in a kind of awkward manner.
We drop by the SM mall beside our place to have our dinner at McDonald’s mere minutes before she and the other Vietnamese leave for the airport. Considering that the last two days were spent walking around alleyways, eating street food, doing things that would be weird for the local eyes, and trying to unearth the authenticity of a city that has lost its soul somewhere in the past, a dinner at a fast food restaurant in a sterile mall seems anticlimactic. But Vietnam has no McDonald’s nor – aside from a few KFC stores – any Western fast food chains. She wants a cheeseburger from the Golden Arches.
My fries, a meal partly due to a necessary compromise, is medium-sized paired with a large tumbler of Coke Light. She has an upsized version of the cheeseburger meal, Gina has her chicken fillet, and Joseph has gone off to his own agenda. The conversation turns into what we’ll do once we get back to our normal routines. She shares her enthusiasm for her upcoming film course and I share my excitement for my newfound interest in European Studies. I tell her what little I remember in making a short film from my college days. “It’s fun, but you’ll wake up one day realizing that you need to get a real job,” I joke. “But I know you’re a much, much better artist than I am.” I’m serious with that part. She lets out an unwilling thanks, unsure whether to take it seriously.
I sip the remaining cola and wipe my grease-covered fingers with a napkin. I pick up my empty container of fries, just as I would in a foreign country. But I’m home and I don’t have any use in keeping it, so I hand it to her. Another reminder for her of the Philippines.
Pictures are from previous shoots. Thanks to Monique Ramos, who modeled in Intramuros, and Maebel Chan, who modeled in Binondo.