A Philippine Comedy of Errors: Part Three

intramuros-manila-philippines-shops

A shaggy tangle of shopfronts in the heart of Intramuros

Continued from
A Philippine Comedy of Errors: Part Two

 

The idea of going to a city as huge as Manila and not exploring it for fear that a terrorist attack may or may not happen at any unspecified time or place (but probably won’t) is, well…foreign to me.  Yes, I could have waited a few hours for my travel companion to wake up and accompany me, but at 8 am it was already 95 degrees Fahrenheit, and I was eager to experience the capital of the Philippines.

Surely, this is what the Philippine Department of Tourism would have wanted…if only they seemed aware I was in their country.

After breakfast at the Mandarin Oriental (where I indulged in a sugary, cheese-topped roll called an ensaymada), I returned to my trusty laptop to craft a morning plan. Within a few minutes, I had studied a city map of Manila and determined that the surrounding Makati District was a commercial area full of office buildings, glitzy shopping malls and yet more hotels. Choosing to explore farther afield, I found two potentially interesting Manila attractions to visit (the historic walled district of Intramuros and the world’s oldest Chinatown) and pored over the Wikipedia entry on the Manila’s light rail transit system (LRT).

makati-skyscraper-manila-philippines

Skyscrapers loom above residential Makati, as glimpsed from my room at the Mandarin Oriental

Downstairs at the hotel’s concierge desk, I asked where to catch a jeepney to the LRT station at Gil Puyat. The kind and tiny man blinked a few times, then furrowed his brow. “Oh, ma’am…really? This is how you wish to travel today? Do you like to be pressed into people like a sardine in a can? And the jeepney, it is very dusty, very crowded. And whoooo…so hot.”

Again with the hot, I thought. 

I assured him I’d only be out for a short time, just enough to see a little of the city then return to meet my trip companion. However, his plaintive tone had already drawn the attention of several other front-desk staff, all of whom agreed that I would be better off either 1) taking a cab, 2) rolling around town in a hermetically-sealed hamster ball or 3) simply not leaving the hotel.

But I was determined, and I walked a whole block away to a jeepney queue beside a Petron gas station. The most popular form of public transportation in the Philippines, jeepneys are mashups of military vehicles, industrial-strength aluminum sheeting, and surplus Isuzu engines from Japan. Each one is a riot of color and style that reflects the spirituality, passions and personality of its driver.

Basically, the whole jeepney thing makes Manila feel like there’s a Mardi Gras parade on each day. 

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Jeepneys: that’s what’s happening

A jeepney queue is the kind of organized chaos that requires a spirit of conquest. While a jeepney’s route is painted on its sides, you should still feel free to pause at its back door and bark out your desired stop to make sure you’ll be headed the right way. If you’ve picked the right jeepney, hop on board through said back door, take a seat and be prepared to squoosh in; jeepneys aim to fill to capacity, and there’s rarely room for…room. 

The jeepney filled and unfilled with people both young and old, some dressed for work, others for school. I got plenty of first glances, but never a second one; as in many other parts of the Earth, Filipinos don’t seem to engage with each other on public transportation.

A jeepney ride costs about 8 Philippine pesos (PHP),  the equivalent of 40 cents in the U.S., and you should pay within a few minutes of taking your seat. Using the smallest possible amount of cash or coinage, either hand your money directly to the driver — who will reach back over his shoulder to take it — or proffer it, without speaking, to a neighboring passenger who will pass it for you. Your change will be handed back the same way, but in reverse.

Within a few minutes of watching others and then doing this whole shebang myself, I was zooming and halting, flying and stopping along busy Taft Avenue, sucking diesel fumes and wincing against blaring horns, surrounded by a blizzard of cars, trucks and mopeds. Weirdest thing? I loved it. The heavy air, the stained concrete, the jumble of colorful storefronts whizzing past — it felt bizarrely exhilarating.

I asked the utterly humorless driver to call out Gil Puyat, my desired LRT station, and he complied. Hopping off, I landed amidst a melee of acrid smells and cryptic street foods; it was only one block to the station, but in that space I passed 2,000 ways to serve chicken and a sea of trash.

All LRT trains run on an elevated track, so all its stations (including Gil Puyat) are upstairs. There’s always a pat-down/purse-check station, apparently designed to keep gun-toting spree killers and other terrorists from plying their trade amongst the trains, and your fare — generally less than 13 PHP — can be paid with cash or credit.

There are several female-area cars on all of Manila’s light-rail trains

Relinquished at the stifling Central Station, I deduced from my hotel front-desk city map that I had a few blocks to walk to the walled city of Intramuros. Four long, largely treeless blocks of beat-down sun and constant traffic later, I began to see the beauty of the hotel having offered me an umbrella; people were using them all around me, safe from UV rays and potential whining. 

Intramuros was thankfully interesting, if not especially lovely. Originally a Spanish creation in the 1600s, this historic district has grown shabby and faded in the centuries hence. Vegetation seems apologetic for its inability to stand straight in the withering sun, intricate paint jobs peel like sunburned skin, and the main objectives of the area are to direct you towards the shade for a halo-halo (Tagalog for “mix-mix,” this is a shaved ice, cream and red bean parfait sort of dessert), or to steer you into scruffy streets to be solicited by 300 rail-thin, barefoot drivers of bike-and-carriage combos called tricycles.

Scenes from Manila’s historic district, Intramuros

I wasn’t hungry and didn’t want to ride, so I walked and walked. Sure, I considered buying a specific map of the neighborhood, but that would have been too easy; better to wander and have no idea what’s going on, I thought, let it settle over me like a visual blanket. Shopfront signs jumbled into hanging wires and basket-penned chickens and fruit juice vendors, lushly weighted vines of bougainvillea dripping from windows, walls and roof edges. Graceful towers rose high beside palm trees in the distance, and mystery moisture pooled beside dust in the cracking streets.

Formerly elegant parks stretched grassy and shadeless by ramparts and cannons, and achingly poor trinket sellers lined the entrance paths to the walls themselves. Cats and dogs lay flat on the ground, too hungry to beg, and wasn’t that City Hall across the street? And one of the city’s famous Bonifacio monuments, a Stalin-esque patchwork symbolizing Philippine resistance to Spanish rule?

Amazing.

A Bonifacio KKK resistance monument beside Manila's City Hall

A Bonifacio KKK resistance-party monument beside Manila’s City Hall

There was just one problem, though I hated to admit it.

It was hot. 

I’d been out for two hours by then, and I was nearly wiped out. Chinatown? Yeah, no — not bloody likely. The most blessed scenario imaginable was getting back to the hotel, where I could 1) connect with JD or 2) face-plant on my bed. 

In front of City Hall I caught a jeepney (with an even more humorless driver) to Taft Avenue, bought a peach iced tea from a convenience store cold-case, then admitted defeat…and hopped in a cab. The hotel had given me their business card in case of an emergency, and this I handed to the cab driver. He studied it on both sides, handed it back without a word, and took off like a horseman of the apocalypse.

“Where you wanna go?,” he shot over his shoulder.

“Um, could you slow down a little?,” I squeaked, suddenly pinned to the back seat. Silence from up front, where he seemed to accelerate. “I want to go to the hotel on that card. The Mandarin Oriental. On Makati Avenue.”

“Okay, but Makati Avenue is long street.”

“Yes…but I just want to go to the one hotel. The Mandarin Oriental. There’s an address here. It’s a block from the Petron jeepney stop.”

“That reminds me, I need to get gas.” He turned the wheel sharply to the right, cutting cleanly across two lanes of oncoming traffic and pulling hard into a residential-area gas station. Gripping the door-rest, eyes wide, I waited for my organs to resettle. A burly gas maiden appeared from nowhere, a tattoo of the Virgin Mary wrapped around her neck, and by the time she filled the tank I had formulated a plan to flee the car and try my luck elsewhere. But just as I opened my mouth to say goodbye, the driver took off again, like a bullet.

This guy could have been a grand prix star on the European racing scene, and despite my terror, I lamented the waste of his talents. He took hairpin turns with two fingers, danced through lanes like Fred Astaire, and pulled far ahead of all comers. In what seemed like record time to enter a state of insanity, we hit Makati Avenue and again he asked, in a huffy tone, “So…which is hotel for you again?”

And make it snappy, already

Seriously, dude? With a deep breath, I once again fished the business card from my purse and handed it to him without a word. He studied the fan symbol as if seeing it for the very first time and exclaimed, “Ohhhhhhh, the Mandarin Oriental! Could have just said that! It’s a big hotel, you know.” 

Slowly closing my eyes, I pictured a meadow full of unicorns, slaking their thirst at a lemonade pond. It did the trick, and I committed no homicide that day.

In two minutes, with great fanfare, he had found the hotel’s driveway. He took my pesos and quite possibly a year of my life, but I couldn’t deny he had returned me alive to the only home I had in this overwhelming city. Onward and upward.

Wooshing into the air-conditioned lobby, I was greeted by smiles and surprise from the front desk staff, who were relieved I’d returned to the fold. I weakly waved, stumbled up to my room, and after one of the top 10 showers of my semi-young life, checked my email.

There was this message from JD:

Hey Melanie, what are you up to today? I’m going to take a tour at 2pm.

Through my thick haze of heat stroke, I smiled with a happy sigh. A tour. How about that? Like, seeing stuff, but from an air-conditioned vehicle. Simply brilliant. I replied to him in the affirmative, said I’d meet him downstairs, and the day was off and running. 

At just shy of noon, this wise stranger and I had 11 more Manila-bound hours on our hands.

___________________________________

To be continued in
A Philippine Comedy of Errors: Part Four

Comments

  1. dear god.

  2. Ha! Maybe I should have chosen that hamster ball option, after all…but one that was tinted, to shade me from the sun. 😉

  3. Claudia Laroye says:

    Loving your continuing saga! And that hamster ball needs A/C.

  4. The months of March to May are the summer season in the Philippines, the reason why it’s much hotter during this time. It’s also summer vacation for the kids and a great time to visit the highlands like Baguio City or the Cordilleras. But the more popular choice is to explore the islands and hit the gorgeous beaches. The cab driver & your whole experience were pretty hilarious. I had a great laugh! The Philippines may have its flaws but it’s really more fun. You’ll definitely not get bored with the Philippines and its people, haha!

  5. Rhoda, that’s a huge relief to hear…not a single person I met in the Philippines mentioned that this was the hottest season! All I heard is that it’s always hot there. I’m 100% aware that it’s more popular for people to visit the Philippine beaches, but that’s why I took this trip — to get a different perspective and a different story.

  6. Hamster balls with A/C should be a rental option in big cities! I mean hey, Segways became a thing…

  7. The best part about this is that I can hear you telling this story. And it’s amazing.

  8. Thank you!! You’re very good to me. 🙂

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