Manila is one of the most densely populated places on the planet, coursing 20 million people through its densely polluted streets every day – not counting us tourists. When we first arrive to the airport, I am reminded of trying to enter the United States from Mexico – the lines at the border are long and harried, the security has fearsome artillery, and the families returning home are speaking quickly with expressive gesticulation while sharing juicy oranges. (It is not hard to trace the countries’ Spanish colonial routes here.)
As we wait for Joff outside the terminal, held up as he is by the city’s unbelievably bad traffic, we witness shabbily dressed security soldiers hand off guns to each other to take pee breaks. Dan and I remark that the more things that are “done for our security,” the less safe we feel. One uniformed guard tries to bribe Archie for his “gracious aid” in directing him to buy snack food.
As we drive through the city’s prettily-painted squalor, Joff agrees that when politicians are most known by their nicknames, a country’s corruption is rather “in-your-face.” Joff gifts us with Zippo lighters bearing an engraving of the city’s most colourful transport: the jeepney. These leftover US military vehicles are ostentatiously decorated and overcrowded and beloved as a Filipino point of cultural pride. Dan and I wonder if there’s a way we could export one home to Canada to use as a Handsome Furs tour van.
Despite fast-food ambience, we salivate over barbeque chicken served with soy, calamansi, chili and vinegar. The American and Spanish and Asian influences fight a tremendous battle on our palettes. No one wins except us. Joff takes Dan and I shopping for films (the cinema of the Philippines is one of Asia’s earliest movie industries and it continues to boast some of its best titles). At an Indigo-style bookstore, Joff points out some Tagalog features before taking us to ¡Market! ¡Market! for a selection of rarer films. Since a number of Joff’s friends are directors, he has a wealth of advise for our choices.
Like Vietnam, the Philippines are known for civet coffee, a pungent specialty brew processed in the digestive tracks of weasels, so we have a cup without thinking about where it’s been. The city is swallowed by a storm and we swim through the streets until flagging down a cab. Once inside, the taxi driver brings us up to date on the very tragic breaking news: a Hong Kong tourist bus is being held hostage by a disgruntled police officer. Joff translates the horrific unfoldings and we all brace ourselves for a bad outcome. As we drive around through the rain, listening to the public radio broadcast of the calamitous proceedings, we feel fearful and sad. We hear gunshots echo out from the speakers. The reporter’s voice is distressed and urgent. We feel sick. We stop the car for a while to just listen. Traffic is redirected and we wait and wait before we can get back to our hotel. Everything is happening hastily but facts are not wholly known. We sit in terror.
Finally back in our district some time later, Dan and Archie head out to hunt for food. None of us are feeling particularly social. On their walk, a man tries to sell them taser guns and three women try to sell themselves and the boys’ general “sketched-out” feelings are raised to an awareness of insecurity. In their absence, I learn that eight hostages have been killed.
Dogs sleepily prowl through our neighborhood and last night’s storm is wrung out from this mornings laundry. Despite the horrible events of what is now known as the Manila Hostage Crisis, we are determined to brave the metropolis and uncover its less randomly violent facets. And we do. For the most part.
Joff takes us to Intramuros, the Old Town of Manila surrounded by high walls and moats. Across from the Manila Cathedral, passed miniature nuns and men selling straw visors and sunglasses, we sit at a fast-food style Chinese restaurant where, again, our palettes are wrestled. We eat the Family Lauriat meal with Pancit but the most exciting part is the Filipino specialty dessert of Halo Halo. The combination of ingredients may sound unsettling (American purple shaved ice and ice cream, Chinese mung bean, plantain, crushed rice, coconut, dried fruit, sweet potato, Spanish leche flan, and corn) but upon its colourful arrival, we are all dying to devour it. It exemplifies the east-meets-west sentiments I’ve been feeling in a surprisingly delicious combination.
Intramuros is rotting and beautiful, given life by the young couples holding hands and the students ambling about in big groups. Election posters are plastered over Havana-style mansions. Armored security vehicles charge down the quiet streets, scaring horse-drawn carriages and cyclists. Ceramic tiled roofs and buzzing telephone wires crowd the overcast sky. We walk the entirety of the old wall, lined as it is by a bizarre American-style golf course, hanging out with Spanish statues and old men taking oases on the mossy fences. At the end of our sightseeing excursion, we find stacked election boxes and their spoilt ballots. I love the city but it does feel desperately corrupt on all levels.
We pass the bus where the hostages were killed and see guards standing protectively in front of the scene. We all realize we are holding our breaths unintentionally. It feels so very heavy. Again the rain overtakes the city and it takes an hour and forty-five minutes to get to the venue. Here, as in Yangon, children turn the streets into slides. Men hide their wares under overpasses. Joff points out the many guarded residences juxtaposed by neighbouring social depravity and explains the “brain drain” equation that he feels paralyzes his country.
At Club Route 196, it takes a while to sort out the sound system, but in the end – as always – we prevail. It is possibly our worst sound yet but we laugh it off … eventually. Joff is earnest and lovely and manages to find a bass amp for us by the time the show goes on, so the show goes off without too many hitches! After a quickly nibbled dinner at a Karaoke club, we do some press but then scurry inside – mid-interview – because the journalist agrees that it’s important to watch the opening band. Arigato Hato are absolutely lovely and kind and frequently mention us from stage and we are so pleased to have them as fans as we are turned into fans of them!
The club is crowded for us. There is little standing room but people manage to dance and dance heartily. I feel very lucky to feel so loved. It is hard for this to be the last show of the tour. I want it to go on forever. I’m not ready for it to be over. My heart feels snagged. After fiery free shots from the club owner, Dan and I saunter over to the abandoned building next door only to discover that it is not wholly abandoned. A makeshift dinner table has been laid over Christmas posters and we imagine ourselves its residents.
At a restaurant near the hotel, we all swap stories about dead friends and relatives and feel very close. The evening drifts into nostalgia until we all realize that we’re just feeling prematurely nostalgic about this very tour. We cheer ourselves up with successive cheers of boozy spirits before heading home to slumber.
MANILA/HONG KONG. August 25.
In the course of our long transit home, our following day is marked by the return of the victims’ bodies to Hong Kong. We watch the live broadcast of the coffins being brought into the very airport we are in. We spend much of the day and night in sad discussion with many Hong Kong nationals. Later on, in our Hong Kong Airport hotel room, we very tightly hold each other. Thankful for our own safety but, as always, sympathetic to the perilous conditions that so many others endure daily. Sleep tight, World, until next time.