Mania in Manila
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Manila has all the charm of a chicken on steroids with its head cut off. Traffic blasts every which way and I'm offered 17 different products per minute as I stroll through the unforgiving heat, ducking under the afternoon shadow to catch a break. Unusual scents of every variety flow throughout the street. Cute but mangy cats feast on a pile of discarded chicken bones on the side of the road. Ladies nap on a dilapidated couch on the sidewalk. An ambulance with its sirens blaring remains gridlocked in traffic just like everybody else. A group of five children play fearlessly in the traffic. I remember my father used to tell me to do this when I was a kid but I'm pretty sure he was joking. The mothers or fathers of these children are nowhere in sight. I find out that sometimes when you go walking without a map you end up exactly nowhere. I get lost and then my tuk-tuk driver gets lost trying to find my hotel. No matter how many times I ask him if he knows where the hotel is and no matter how many times he insists that he does, I know that he is clueless. What would normally be a quick trip in most western cities becomes an all day affair.
The night closes in quickly. For those who think that we have a world-class homeless problem where I live (Vancouver), please readjust your settings. Not more than 50 meters from the entrance of a hotel which would easily charge $300+USD per night a family of no less than 3 generations is represented, curled up on the sidewalk on a bed of cardboard sheets. An overly talkative and kind local man invites me to his table at an open air bar where a karaoke style band plays piss-poor versions of western songs that were popular 15 years ago. A young man of no more than 18 years, ostensibly a security officer at the bar, fetches me a beer glass and dispenses our requests to the band, hastily jotted down on a napkin. Everyone I talk to tells me not to trust anybody. But do I trust them? The verbose man and his friends are very sweet and attentive, constantly refilling my beer immediately after I've drained it. We chat for a while and I hear stories about him and his world travels. He tells me he does not like the Philippines because not even the locals can trust each other. I weakly try to defend the Philippines as he dismisses my arguments. I finally excuse myself and head into the street.
I carry a multi-purpose utensil which on one end has a bottle opener to open the beer that's always in hand as I stroll at night. The other end of the utensil has a corkscrew which I would theoretically use in the unlikely event that I'm forced to defend myself. I stumble into the LA Cafe, an infamous local party joint. It's not one technically one of Manila's "girlie" bars but it may as well be. Within 10 minutes a strange local girl has wrapped her arms tightly around me, insisting that she is in love with me. I tell her this must be "love at first sight" and the humour is not lost on her. The problem becomes that she simply will not let go of me and I'm too reticent to upset or offend her by telling her to get lost. Every other girl that walks by is laughing, sort of with and at me. I can only roll my eyes so many times. I finally peel myself away and start chatting with one of the waitresses. She's really nice and we chat about good diving spots in the Philippines. I can see the girl who is "in love with me" is following me around, trying her best to look upset. I head downstairs and bump into two hipster African-American dudes who say they are studying philosophy here in Manila. I scratch my head wondering what a strange experience that would be. Female attention is never far away in this place and the girlies continue to swarm.
I finally try to leave but the waitress girl insists that I pay her 500 pisos ($11 USD) for the service of introducing her to her friend, a rather scary looking prostitute. It's true that she did introduce me to her friend but that's not a service that I'm ready to part with 500 pisos for. I give her 200 pisos to calm her down and promptly enter the street where several hands are immediately extended towards me. Everybody needs to get paid right away for some sort of service that they say they have provided for me. I pay some chap 10 pisos for hailing me a cab and quickly get in. The driver insists that it costs 100 pisos flat rate to get back to my hotel when I know that it should only cost about 40 pisos on the meter. But he refuses to use the meter and it's 5 AM and I'm in no mood to negotiate. 100 pisos it is then. He manages to get lost but my hotel is only about 6 blocks away. I arrive safe and sound at the hotel where the reception lady sleeps on a bench in the lobby and lets me in when I knock. Exhausted.
The next day I'm on my way out of town. From the comfort of the bus, I see a man perched in what appears to be a Muslim-prayer style position. But he's not praying. He's delicately sipping water from the gutter as traffic whips by two feet from where he drinks. The drive to the next town is only 2 hours but 45 minutes of it is just negotiating the hectic streets of Manila