Travelogue: Venice Grand Canal Mall

Travelogue: Venice Grand Canal Mall

When people mention that they are going to ‘Manila’, most of the time they mean Metro Manila. Manila city itself is just one city in a metropolitan area that includes fifteen others and one municipality: Quezon City (where we were staying with my relatives), Makati, Pasay, Pasig, San Juan, Caloocan, Las Pinas, Mandaluyong, Muntinlupa, Navotas, Paranaque, Valenzuela, Malabon, Marikina, Pateros (the municipality) and Taguig, which is where we were heading. Specifically, we were heading to Bonifacio Global City within Taguig city; a city within a city, within the metro.

We piled into a taxi and K gave the driver directions while engaging him in conversation. I had never seen someone so keen to talk to a taxi driver before and he seemed to appreciate the conversation. We were driving from one business district to another. BGC is a fairly recent development within the Metro, and in just over twenty years has become an important business nd commercial hub. It has also become a symbol of wealth, with many luxury apartment developments springing up and maybe the most intentionally posh high street in the country. A friend had told me that ‘lots of celebrities and CEOs live there; if you live in BGC, it’s a sign that you’ve made it’. It didn’t strike me as somewhere that would peak my interest, but I was excited to see a part of Manila I hadn’t before. Looking out the window, the insufferable traffic that plagued much of Manila seemed not to exist here. The roads were wide and clean, lined by blocks of offices and swanky apartments, many sparsely populated and others still under construction. BGC is an ongoing project.

Our taxi turned off the main highway and began to climb Mckinley Hill, an area developer Megaworld (a name that conjures images of a theme park rather than a real estate company) describes on their website as “the perfect LIVE-WORK-PLAY-LEARN-SHOP community” (their capitalisation, not mine), and a taste of “European living in the tropics”, an image which is rammed home quite forcibly by our destination, Venice Grand Canal Mall. We alighted from the taxi and K insisted she pay the fare.

I thought it was just a name. From the outside it seemed like any other mall: less boxy and plain than a typical mall, but a mall nonetheless. It’s inside where you realise why it’s called ‘Venice Grand Canal’. In the central complex sits a shallow canal on which gondolas captained by gondoliers in striped shirts and red neckerchiefs transport paying customers from one end to the other. Surrounding this is the mall itself; the walls divided up into small ‘buildings’ akin to the narrow houses seen on Venetian streets, but painted various shades of pink and yellow, and conveying an atmosphere of gaudy modern imitation rather than traditional European abodes. There is no roof over the canal, and high rises of mismatching styles towered over the mall. We stood at a balcony to take in the scene. Many others were doing the same, gazing down upon those in the boats and taking photos, and we couldn’t help but join in.

We walked along the lower level, Jen and K chatting happily in Tagalog and gazing briefly at the stalls. Wallpaper behind them depicted images of traditional European shops such as a ‘grocers’ and a ‘boulangerie’. In the centre of the mall sat two docks on either side of the canal, in the shadow of a replica ‘bridge of sighs’. There seemed to be decent demand for rides, though I couldn’t imagine being keen for getting ferried twenty-five yards before the gondolier has to pull a u-turn and head back the same way, like doing lengths of a pool, all under the watchful gaze of fellow shoppers. The mall itself is definitely novel, but you can’t shake the feeling that it’s a glorified swimming pool surrounded by a shopping centre more reminiscent of Macau (The Venetian Macau casino, specifically) than Venice.
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The Travelogue: MRT & K

One goal Jen and I had for this trip was to meet up with as many of our internet friend as possible, and on our first full day of the trip we had arranged to meet K, a long time correspondent and someone we already considered a close friend. She’s a very open-minded, committed and hard working individual, and as she works for local government, she has to be. We had bonded over our love of art and frustrations with the current state of Filipino politics. Jen and I both agreed she was the first person we wanted to meet.

However, we weren’t sure which day we had actually arranged to meet her and having no internet at my tita’s we had no way to get in contact. She was traveling from Cavite, braving a two hour journey and the monstrosity that is Manila traffic to see us; we couldn’t leave her hanging. We scrambled to buy a SIM card and managed to message her. She was already in the city and we arranged to meet in Makati around midday. We bid my ‘paranoid talaga!’ mother and tita L goodbye, listening politely to their nonsense about possible kidnappings and the dangers of meeting ‘strangers’ and agreeing that, yes, we would take a photo of our friend (for proof, I guess?).

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To get to Makati we decided to take the MRT (Metro Rail Transit system). It’s reputation precedes it; known for being vastly overcrowded, especially at rush hour, and poorly maintained in recent years, people had warned me not to bother with it, but that just made me curious to see what the fuss was about.

We bought our tickets at Araneta center and climbed to the platform just as a train was about to depart. Jen grabbed my hand and pulled me into the nearest carriage five seconds before the doors slid shut. It was basically full, with just enough wiggle room to manoeuvre my backpack off my shoulders without hitting someone in the face, but not yet at the chronic over-capactiy locals often complain about. A few minutes later, Jen had an uneasy feeling.

‘I think we’re in a women only carriage’, she whispered to me.

I turned to look around. Sure enough, it seemed like she was right.

Being half-white and tall for a Filipino I tend to get stared at a lot, something I hadn’t been prepared for on my first trip to the country where I was old enough to be conscious of it, though I’d become used to it by now. Still, nothing has made me more self-aware that having nearly an entire carriage of women (and one man, for some reason) gaze intently at you and wonder why you’re there. I was a head taller than everyone else and standing by the doors; there was no way to blend in, and I kept one had on my backpack and one on Jen’s shoulder so they knew I was with her. Jen told me not to worry about it. At the next stop, I tried hard not to get in the way as women squeezed in and out of the carriage, Jen and I getting shuffled back into the very centre. A large Caucasian man in sunglasses and typical middle-aged-tourist attire walked casually through the doors at the far end, seemingly unaware (I’d hope) that he shouldn’t have. This might have made me feel more relaxed, but it didn’t. At the next stop, Ortigas, Jen and I both agreed we should alight and board the proper carriage of the next train.

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We found K at Glorietta mall, eventually. Due to a miscommunication and us not knowing the geography of the area, we kept walking around and missing each other. At one point Jen waved at someone she thought was K, only to realise that she had embarrassed herself. It’s okay, not many people saw.

So we decided to stay on one place. Ten minutes later, K appeared gifts and hugs for us. We’d brought her presents from England too, but we all decided that it’d be better to exchange them later rather than standing at the entrance to Glorietta. We weren’t sticking around anyway; K was taking us to BGC.
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The Travelogue: Balikbayan

The Travelogue: Balikbayan

Flicking through my passport in line at immigration, I glanced at the stamp from my previous trip to the Philippines. On the line above ‘date until’ were no numbers, but two letters: bb. Balikbayan. One who has left and has now returned.

I was born in Manila, but it was not so much a homecoming for me as for my mother, or Jen, my girlfriend. They were born and raised in the Philippines, and while they had left, still harboured a deep love for the country, like a child who has flown the nest. They had travelled from half a world away back ‘home’ far more frequently than I had. I love the Philippines too, but that love is mixed with curiosity, confusion, and a tiny bit of fear too.

The flight over was longer than I remembered. The airline we travel with had added a stopover in Taiwan since I last made this journey, and this meant an extension to the eighteen hour journey time. This meant more sitting, even number arses, and sore necks, which did not go down well with Jen who suffers from travel sickness and was not able to get the window seat, which usually alleviates it somewhat. That honour was taken by a nice Dutch girl whose name now escapes me, (who also needed the window seat due to travel sickness) who we made friendly sporadic conversation with during the journey. She had lived in Manila for a year for work, and was revisiting the country for a week to meet friends. I was envious of how well she seemed to sleep, though I had taken the tact of trying to stay up the whole flight to cheat jet lag (in the end, it didn’t work).

When our plane began it’s descent, darkness had already descended on Manila. As we dropped below the clouds the golden lights of the metro shone, casting a golden aura over the city. Headlights shone along the four main highways: Aurora, Edsa, Taft and Roxas. Hardly any traffic showed motion; countless cars stood still along these clogged arteries that run through the heart of the city, the very traffic we’d be sat in an hour hence.

Once off the plane at NAIA, we reunited with my mother, who had been sat apart from us, gathered our suitcases, and headed to the arrival area, searching the sea of faces for my relatives who had braved the journey to collect us. We were met by Tita L, my mother’s older sister, and my cousins kuya A and kuya M who embraced me in short, awkward hugs.

“What do you think of my boy?” my mother asks tita L, smiling.

“He’s so handsome!”, she responds. A typical tita response.

We’d returned.

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The heat I felt upon stepping out of the airport doors sent a warm wave of nostalgia through me. Like a warm blanket, the evening heat enveloped me as I stood, my sleep-deprived mind becoming drowsy. I was impatient to get to the house.

Half an hour later we were in gridlock, six of us packed into a five seater car, travel Filipino style, Jenny, myself, my mother and my tita, all squished into the back seat.

“You don’t need that,” Jen told me as I strained to put my seatbelt on. “This is the Philippines,” she said, smiling at me like I was a naive child. No one else had buckled up,  but the safety-conscious self within protested and I stubbornly stayed strapped in.

It took us two and a half hours to get to my tita’s in Cubao. Along the way, my relatives and Jenny chatted happily in Tagalog, with smatterings of English for my benefit, my mother catching up with her sister and everyone asking Jenny questions. I have limited knowledge of Tagalog, but I can generally understand the gist of a conversation, and followed along as best I could while silently taking in the sights of night-time Manila. Even late at night, there is so much activity on the street. Night markets, food stalls, people hopping off Jeepneys and walking into the night, bright billboards, street dogs, stray cats, large groups of small children playing basketball, pedicabs trying desperately not for get hit by traffic and motorbikes zipping in between it, tricycle drivers catching some shut-eye while lying across their motorcycles. For a country-boy, these initial impressions when returning to the city are fascinating, the windows of the car becoming my television.

Finally, we reached the house. My cousins unloaded the baggage from the car as we greeted and embraced tita G and others who had been waiting outside to meet us. We entered the kitchen to find even more relatives, some of which I had met before, some I hadn’t, but all were introduced to us regardless. When everyone had filed in, eight adults and four children were packed into the room, the ceiling-mounted fan not able to blow the tropical evening heat off my skin. That nostalgic heat, and those nostalgic scenes, are what finally made me feel tired.

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