35mm Philippines: Views of Manila Bay
5:30pm. Right on time. We approached the bay walk as the sun hung low in an orange-tinged sky. On the sea wall, many had already found their perch for the upcoming attraction: sunset. We joined them in sitting on the sun-baked sea wall.
I find Manila Bay perfectly encompasses two aspects of life in the Philippines: stunning natural beauty and the busyness of life. Look out to sea and you see serenity, the calming rhythm of the waves sloshing against the shore, the gentle bobbing of distant ships, the gently descending sun. Turn back to the bay walk and you find local children running and shouting along the wall, a mother with sun-loved skin calling after them, three lanes of heavy traffic along Roxas boulevard, local vendors peddling their wares, the occasional motorbike or bicycle speeding along the path. It really is one of my favourite spots in the world.
To the right of where we sat, a large group of local kids stood on the rocks posing for a photo taken by a foreign tourist. A girl and her farther, sat on the salty rocks, looked over to see what the commotion was. A few locals were swimming in the water, despite the DOH issuing a health warning about the waters just a month before. For many, it’s a tradition. Out at sea, a single fisherman sat hunched in his boat, a lonely silhouette.
We walked further along. Every twenty or thirty yards were small signs advertising massages. These street-masseurs provide shoulder rubs as you watch the sun set, offering Swedish, Shiatsu, and Thai massage styles. One struck a pose and smiled when he saw that Jen had her camera out.
A woman selling buko (coconuts) walked up and down the wall, calling for customers, the green produce balanced in a basket atop her head. A pair of old men sat on the rocks, the light of a fire illuminating them. Every now and then, a Kalesa (horse and carriage) would trot by, dropping people off, the final stop on their tour of Intramuros. They’d got here at the right time.
Every eye along the bay was trained to the horizon. Emerging below a low cloud, the sun dipped its toe into the water. Rays of deep red and orange spilt out across the sea. Like paint from the tip of a dipped brush, it diffused into the water and reflected across the surface. A cruise ship glided towards the setting sun, as if it wanted to follow it to the next world. We watched them close in on the horizon until neither was in sight. It had truly been a magic hour.
I held Jen’s hand as we walked through twilight. A few couples still lay on the walls holding hands or lying in each others’ laps. I thought of my porch at home, in which hung framed photos my father had taken of my mother along this walk over twenty-five years ago. This place inspires love.
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The Bay walk, along Roxas Boulevard, is simultaneously relaxed and a hive of activity. Local children run, swim, and shout. Street vendors call for customers. Motorbikes, bicycles, and even a horse and cart wend their way along the pavement. All along the sea wall, friends and couples chat happily, the din of heavy traffic ever-present in the background.
But this is not what I remember, two months removed. I remember serenity. Look out to sea and the noise of the world dissipates, and all you hear are gentle waves and the sea breeze. The cacophony of humanity recedes; only beauty touches your senses. That is the power of sunset at Manila Bay.
I remember watching Manila, Open City, a Filipino movie by celebrated film maker Eddie Romero, that my father had rented on DVD not long after my previous visit to the Philippines. Living in England, it was one of the few times I’d seen the Philippines represented in film – not many Filipino films get distribution here – and I enjoyed it for its battle sequences and as a window into Filipino history. It was a vivid depiction, presented in ‘Luxurious FAMEcolor’, of the battle for, and liberation of, Manila from an occupying Japanese army who was slaughtering civilians within the city during the final stages of World War II. Much of the documentary-like story takes place within Intramuros, and I found myself seeing locales I’d witnessed during my trip.
I don’t remember too much of the film, other than battle scenes, depictions of slaughter and rape, some dodgy dubbing, and a sub-plot where a Japanese officer falls in love with a Filipino nun. But for some reason I remembered the beginning; after a few scenes of ‘present day’ (1968, when it was filmed) Manila the title card flashed up over the image of San Agustin Church. It was here that Jen and I alighted a taxi.
As soon as we’d stepped out we were descended upon by three pedicab tour guides. One, wearing a yellow shirt and his widest smile, pointed vigorously at a laminated piece of paper depicting the various spots around the walled city he could take us too. We politely declined, but he was persistent and walked with us a little before falling back as we declined again. We didn’t have much time, and wanted to explore our own route at our own pace.
We approached the church. It’s design is angular, all squares and triangles, and unintentionally asymmetrical as the left belfry was damaged in an earthquake and hence removed. The building that stood in front us is actually the third iteration of the church. The first two were built of bamboo and wood, respectively, and succumbed to fires in the 16th century. Construction on the third and current stone structure began in 1586 and was completed in 1607. In the intervening time between it’s completion and the present day, it has survived seven major earthquakes, the ravages of colonialism, and war, the only church left standing in Intramuros after the Japanese occupation. Like the Philippines itself, it has been occupied and ransacked and damaged, but yet it remains, faithful and persistent.
We turned around to find the pedicab driver had followed us and continued to offer his services. We walked past him, Jen politely declining again in Tagalog, yet still he walked with us. We left the church ground and wandered down the road, but looking to our left we found the man had mounted his bicycle and cycled slowly alongside us. Jen, her voice now betraying her annoyance, continued to rebuff him in Tagalog, and after twenty yards turned his pedicab around, shouting a parting shot at Jen that I didn’t understand. She was visibly shook by his harassment, and we sat at a nearby monument to cool down.
The bronze monument depicted a shrouded woman, weeping over the limp body of a baby, surrounded by deceased or desperate figures. It is dedicated to the “100,000 men, women, children, and infants killed in Manila during its battle of liberation. Nearby, two Australian tourist were being lead by a guide.
“It was in 1942 that General MacArthur uttered his famous words ‘I shall return'”, he was telling them, explaining MacArthur’s escape to Australia and eventual return to the Philippines where he commanded the United States Army Forces in the Far East in liberating the city.
We didn’t want to double back and run into that pedicab driver again, so we ventured down the busy back streets. They were not as well-maintained as the streets immediately surrounded San Agustin, but were loud with life: children playing basket ball, dogs barking, teens returning from school, and tambay chatting outside small eateries.
We made a right and found ourselves back at the church. The yellow-shirted pedicab driver was back in the car park, talking animatedly at a brown-haired tourist, hopefully being more polite to her than he had to us.
We climbed up steps to the citadel wall. It was around 4pm, the late afternoon sun still bright and oppressive, beating us down with harsh rays while we had nowhere to hide. The brow of my baseball cap became soaked in sweat, and removing it left my eyes naked against light. Finding nothing of note, we doubled back. A few foreign tourists seemed to do the same. Beneath us, members of the municipal golf course cracked balls down the fairway. The golf course is actually the remnants of the moat of the citadel, filled in after the American colonisation. Patches of sun-browned grass stood out on the verdant surface.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but we were walking in the opposite direction to what I wanted to see: Fort Santiago. The citadel was constructed by Miguel López de Legazpi, the conquistador who first established Spanish settlements in the Philippines, and was completed in 1593, becoming the new capital and the premier stronghold on the islands. It is a site symbolising colonial power, and also death. Many lost their lives within the walls during the Massacre of Manila, and national hero of the Philippines, Jose Rizal, was imprisoned there before his execution in 1896. A museum dedicated to Rizal now sits within the fort.
I had seen this part of Intramuros during my visit six years ago with my mother, sister, and tita G. I wanted to revisit this with Jen, since it’s the most famous part of the walled city. Alas, it looked like we were running out of time, and we decided it was time to walk over to the bay walk on Roxas Boulevard.
We walked past a derelict section of the wall, the afternoon sun penetrated the empty stone windows casting spotlights along the road. A ginger cat, young and thin, turned his head to stare at us before darting around a corner. As we passed a junction we heard a horn. We looked to our left, and who should we see but the yellow-shirted pedicab driver cycling towards us, his side car still empty. Was he haunting us? We tried to ignore him. As he came within earshot, he shouted “Akala mo naman ang ganda mo!” (“You think you’re that pretty?!”) at Jen, an irrelevant epithet, before rounding a corner and finally vanishing. He reminded me of a child who throws a tantrum when he can’t get his way.
May his sidecar forever remain empty.
For some reason, all his harassment and insults throughout the day had been aimed at Jen, and I could see that, along with the heat, they had worn her down. “Some Filipinos can’t take no for an answer”, she sighed in frustration.
I’d never eaten part of a cow’s intestine before. That was before I tried Kare Kare, a traditional Filipino stew consisting of meat and vegetables in a savoury peanut sauce. Kuya S (I’m still not sure what relation I am to him, though I know it’s not by blood) took us all out for lunch at Max’s and everyone insisted I try Filipino foods I hadn’t before.
“Don’t worry, it’s been boiled many times so there are no germs”, ate M reassured me. “I hope”, she added.
When in Rome, and all that. I tried it, chewing it as best I could for it was slimy on my tongue, and concluded I’d much prefer Kare Kare without part of a cow’s digestive track, and was careful not to put any more on my plate. I also had Tofu Adobong, which I liked very much.
After a pleasant meal and tita L’s insistances that we take photos for Facebook (she’s addicted), the plan was for us to all go to Market Market. Alas, as always with my family, plans can change on a dime, and when all of us, apart from kuya S who had somewhere to be, had piled into two Ubers, Jen and I found out we were being taken to Venice Grand Canal Mall for the second day in a row.
We wandered around for forty-five minutes, taking photos here and there, but we’d seen all we’d wanted to the day before, and there wasn’t all that much to see beyond the initial novelty of the gondolas. When the family had reconvened outside Jollibee, Jen and I decided to head to the Mall of Asia while the others took the babies home. Tita L joined us in the taxi, as she was heading in the same direction to get transport to Atimonan. A short ride later, we alighted, bade her farewell (for now) and ventured into the massive Mall of Asia.
The Philippines loves a big mall. Four of the twenty largest malls in the world reside on the archipelago, MoA sitting at 4th in the country and 11th in the world and covering an area of 406,962 square meters. My village could comfortably fit inside it’s walls. Still, I remember it feeling bigger; when I last visited, in 2011, it was ranked 2nd largest mall in the Philippines, before being knocked down the table by SM Megamall’s 2011 extension and the opening of SM Seaside City Cebu in 2015.
We wandered around, often aimlessly, Jen munching on giga cheese fries from Potato Corner. I was sad to see that a few shops I had planned to revisit had shut and been replaced, most notable Fujifilm, for I didn’t know where else to buy camera film (that wasn’t Instax).
There are only two facets of Filipino life that genuinely give me culture shock, and it’s not the food, regardless of whether there’s cow intestine or not. One: most public toilets in the country don’t come with toilet paper (and you can’t flush tissue either). And two: the nature of customer service in shops.
Shopping in the Philippines, while great, has certain frustrations. For one thing, even the largest malls, such as MoA and Megamall, have a pitiful number of maps. You’d think buildings that are the size of small towns would provide shoppers with the courtesy of knowing where they are and where they want to go is actually located. That being said, the maps these gigantic malls do have are interactive and very useful, allowing you to search for specific stores and showing you the exact route. But I only found two in the entirety of MoA, and the average mall may contain no maps at all, leaving consumers to wander around aimlessly, though that’s probably what they want.
Then there is the customer service. I don’t know about you, but I’m someone who likes to browse at my leisure and ask for assistance should I require it, but you’re often not given that option. Again, many places are just fine. I find the staff in Smart and Globe stores very helpful, and love Toy Kingdom (the staff in there have to deal so many excitable kids), but venture into a less frequented area of an SM department store and you’ll find a group of six or seven staff members with folded arms and glum expressions, standing around like a gang in an alleyway. Should they hear you approach, their heads will turn in unison to stare, expectant, daring you to enter into their territory. It’s at this point that I usually dart down a sidetrack, but if you’re unfortunate enough to actually need something in the section they occupy, prepare to be surrounded. Their faces will lighten, smiles breaking, while they greet you with ‘Hi, sir. Hi, Ma’am’, before barraging you with options and sizes and designs and prices. I, for one, can’t stand so much attention. Nor can I understand why there needs to be so many staff members in every section; you don’t need seven on suitcases, that’s just a fact.
It was a similar story in Art Bar, a lovely little art shop and cafe we visited in BGC the day before. The amount of staff on the first floor alone outnumbered customers 2:1. And that was when there were other customers other than our little group; at one point we had the floor to ourselves. The shop seemed vastly overstaffed: barring the man in the cafe, the one of the door, and the one who approached us, very few of them were doing any work. I counted seven people stood behind the till, chatting quietly, staring at us, and one or two were even on their phone. Two of the girls were so bored they started dancing, slowly twirling each other around in time to the coffee shop soundtrack. The shop only opened at the beginning of the year; we’ll have to see how long it lasts since it seems to be paying for a pointless amount of staff.
With such an abundance of staff in shops you’d think service would be pretty zippy, but that is often not the case. At one point I spent fifteen minutes queuing in Watsons to buy tissues. There was only one woman on the till, and as people in front of me were buying prescriptions, it’s understandable there’d be a wait. What wasn’t understandable was that another women, who I presumed to be the supervisor, stood behind the till, and instead of opening another like I expected, simply took the items of those standing in line and places them next to the register before wandering off again. As you can imagine, this caused a little confusion for the woman serving, as she couldn’t work out whose items were whose, and had to ask us customers. It was an exercise in futility.
And then there’s Comic Alley, a shop that I would be absolutely in love with were it not for the irritating staff. I don’t know why, but they are trained to be like leeches, sticking to you relentlessly, offering redundant comments such as ‘dalawang designs, sir’, while you’re literally holding the dalawang designs in your hand. (A game I like to play is to walk in a figure of eight around the store, not looking at anything, just to see how long someone will follow me around.) On this occasion, I was greeted by an energetic girl with a nice smile, who skipped alongside me and clapped loudly along with the anime soundtracks on the speakers. I could barely concentrate on what I was looking at. After a few minutes of clapping in my ear, she tagged in a colleague, but I was about done, and left the One-Punch Man backpack I’d had my eye on on the shelf. If the staff were less cloying, I’d spend so much money in Comic Alley.
I asked friends why the customer service is this way. Jen, who unlike me grew up in the Philippines, seems to find many shop assistants as annoying as I do. “They’re just overenthusiastic about making sales”, she believes. A friend I asked had a different interpretation: “I guess it’s our culture. We’ve always been hospitable, and maybe sometimes we overdo it”, she explained. “I also hate it when they hover around me”. I always thought part of being hospitable was making guests feel comfortable. No one I know in the Philippines, whether relative or friend, seems to find it any less than annoying. (If anyone who is in customer service in the Philippines knows why things are the way they are, please leave a comment, I’m genuinely interested to know).
In many respects, you’ll get a better customer experience in local markets and changi. While stall owners do tend to hover as well, you’re only dealing with one person, and I’ve found they are more helpful and less pushy than their counterparts in the middle-class stores and malls of Manila.
MoA attracts on average 200,000 people a day, and thought it is vast and spacious, entrances and exits can get congested. We braved the throngs of shoppers across the bridge and down to the bay area, where you can find more restaurants, a Ferris wheel and fun fair rides, and innumerable people sitting along the seawall, waiting for the famed sunsets of Manila bay. The day was overcast and humid; the possibility of a good sunset low, but still the wall was packed for as far as the eye can see in either direction with groups of young people happily chatting while staring out to sea, with no space for newcomers. We retreated back up to the bridge, slightly disappointed, the broken escalator adding a little frustration to the mix. We didn’t need to worry though, the next day we’d set our gaze on the true majesty of a sunset at Manila Bay.
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35mm Philippines: Views of Venice Grand Canal Mall
Olympus OM-40 + Kodak Ektar 100 &
Olympus XA2 + Fuji Superia 100 (expired)
“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.”
Apart from meeting K, I will remember Bonifacio High Street for one other, very specific reason.
As I sat in the back of a taxi on 5th Avenue, along from BGC High Street, my eyes drooping from jet lag and a pleasant day of wandering, I saw something that immediately woke me up. A boy in his mid-teens, with slicked-back hair and expensive looking shoes told his four companions to go on ahead of him. He then approached a bush in the pavement and stood with his legs apart, and I thought ‘No, he isn’t…’ He did. He proceeded to whip out his dick and piss in full view of the gridlock traffic and any pedestrians who were unlucky enough to be walking his way. I was flabbergasted, and turned away in case we made eye contact. People who pee in public are usually more subtle, or drunk, not some trendy teen who looked like he was on his way to the movies with his friends. Yet here he was, proudly peeing in one of the most intentionally ‘posh’ areas of the entire country. I really hoped the irony wasn’t lost on him.
The rest of the car now noticed. The girls couldn’t help exclaiming ‘oh, my god!’ through surprised laughter. “He’s very bold”, said the taxi driver with a chuckle. “I couldn’t do that, could you do that?” I couldn’t help but smile.
The rest of the taxi ride wasn’t as fun. K once again engaged the taxi driver in conversation, during which the topic became me being half-white, Jen and I being from England, and then somehow devolved into the driver’s opinions on black people in America and the UK, which didn’t sound pleasant. I don’t have a great understanding of Tagalog, but I can generally get the gist of a conversation, and the racism seemed to seep through the language barrier. ‘Kuya, you’re racist!’, K would interject at points, confirming my suspicions, which he would just shrug off with a laugh and a ‘hindi po!’, dismissing her rebuttals as well. He didn’t seem to get that saying racist things and having racist views made him a racist, though racists are often like that. It’s not the first time I’d heard anti-black sentiment in the Philippines, I doubt it’ll be the last either. It’s a problem in the Philippines, in Asia, and in the world as a whole, sadly.
After his rant the driver glanced at me in the rear-view. “Hindi naiintindihan ng mga Briton” (the Briton doesn’t understand), he said to K. I understood enough.
We alighted the taxi at Makati station. I was glad to be out of it and on the last leg home, even if it meant braving the MRT. Jen was curious as to why K is so chatty with taxi drivers.
“I try to psyche them out. I need to feel the driver is an okay person; also to keep from doing anything stupid”, she said, and showed us the pepper spray in her bag. She does have to travel around a lot for work, often alone. Better safe than sorry, I guess. “I also did that so they know that you have a local friend with you”, she continued, “and wont charge you way over the meter; they always do that to people from out-of-town unless you’re using Uber or Grab”. This was also something I was aware of, and over the course of the trip we did get caught out twice, but in general the taxi drivers were honest in their pricing.
Sadly, it was time to part with K. We had had a lovely day with her, especially Jen, who was well rested after the flight and able to have lively conversations in Tagalog with K throughout the day. We all hugged, vowed to see each other again, then Jen and I climbed to the platform.
It was rush hour on the MRT; exactly what I’d been warned about. My fellow commuters and I piled into the carriage, all of our personal bubbles obliterated as we politely forced our way far enough inside that we wouldn’t get caught in the closing doors, each of us trying to ignore just how many elbows were inadvertently digging into us and whose breath we were smelling. I held on to Jen’s hand. A balding businessman joined me in being squashed up against the doors. To my right, a seated woman caught some shut-eye, her head leant against the metal railing. I was jet lagged, but even I wouldn’t have managed to find sleep in there. I tried my best to ignore those whose bodily warmth I was forced to share, but I was awakened from my daydreams by a loud cough the businessman’s spittle. If you have a fetish for trapped with people coughing in your face, then the MRT may just be for you.
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