Arriving in Manila
Entering the airport (named after Filipino patriot Ninoy Aquino, who was assassinated on its own very runway), I began taking in the new country, began making impressions. I was amused to notice industrial-sized bug zappers in the departure lounge for international flights. My flight arrived at 11pm, and no one else was waiting in the area. The blue glow surged and crackled as it electrocuted mosquitoes. There was a prominent sign that welcomed back Filipino nationals who had been working abroad. Apparently this is a prominent source of income for the country. They have a robust national program to match up eligible workers with employment outside the Philippines. I cleared customs without a hitch, and turned over the form that declared in red ink, WARNING DEATH TO DRUG TRAFFICKERS UNDER PHILIPPINE LAW. A dire threat, it seemed to me, even though all I was guilty of “trafficking” were cassette tapes and a pair of binoculars. I changed a little money, and then stepped outside to find Noah.
Noah takes me to the Pension & the Hobbit House
There was a mild thunderstorm in Manila when I stepped out of the airport. Noah was there, precisely where he said he would be. We walked out of the airport parking lot in the drizzle, and hailed a cab. The ride was lengthy due to intense traffic on Roxas Boulevard, the main road north along Manila Bay. We arrived at the Pension Natividad, a great lodging that would become my home away from home in Manila. The Pension is situated a block away from the Bay, in the shadow of an immense high rise, the Diamond Hotel. On the other side is a raucous karaoke bar. It is situated on the boundary between the neighborhoods of Ermita and Malate, both relatively well off and directed towards tourism and merchandise. Out in front of its cement wall, the Pension advertises “Clean Guest Rooms for Individuals, Married Couples, and Families.” It is made of concrete and stucco, with bars over the windows. It was at the Pension that I was first shown what a Catholic culture prevails in the Philippines. Tile portraits of Jesus and the Virgin Mary beamed benevolently at Pension guests. Each of the religious figures were fitted with a Sacred Heart which was startlingly anatomically accurate, and spouting flame like a Zippo, to boot. The damp Philippine air penetrates most buildings, as they lack the “climate control” that pervades Western architecture. The rain imbued everything with a wet smell, including the concrete walls of our room. Still, it was a room, and not Seat 13C. Upon arrival, I showered and reclaimed my sense of hygiene. I was in a zone between jet lag and exhilaration at being in a new country, and was ready to go out and experience something. Noah recommended that out first stop be the Hobbit House, a bar not far from our lodging. We passed another Peace Corps Volunteer in the lobby of the Pension, and Noah introduced us. When he mentioned that we were on our way to the Hobbit House, a look of intense amusement came over the woman’s face. Noah refused to explain, telling me that I would understand soon enough. I realized the source of her bemusement as soon as we ducked into the bar: the Hobbit House is staffed entirely by dwarves and midgets. I am no Wilt Chamberlain, and I measure a modest 6 feet in height. As such, it was surreal to enter a place where everyone else was less than four feet tall. The set-up for a bar like this seems incredibly un-P.C. I’m sure it would never fly in the United States, but I guess it works for what it is here in the seedy capital of the Philippines. We ordered San Miguel, the Filipino version of Budweiser. Not everyone was a midget; a talented band of ordinary-sized Filipino men was playing covers of American pop tunes. An attractive Filipina ascended to the stage and sang “Torn” in perfect imitation while gyrating her bare stomach and showing off the top several inches of her thong underwear. Though we were enjoying the (ahem) unique vibe offered by the Hobbit House, it was too loud to talk. Since Noah and I had been years without seeing each other in person, we decided that catching up was going to take priority over bopping with the little people.
Cafe Adrtiatico, far into the night
Outside, the sewage smell was rank and fetid and distinctly third world. We wandered through alleys, and along a maze of dripping streets, taking shelter where possible under awnings. Many of them were so low that I was forced to duck, lest I stay dry only at the expense of knocking myself cold. We searched out another place, helped along by Noah asking directions in Tagalog, and the restaurant delivery boys looking amused to see a white man talking their language. It turns out that Noah speaks Kinaraya, the dialect of the central Phillipine island group known as the Visayas. He was using his rural accent here in the height of Philippine urbanity. To these locals, it must have seemed comical. A comparable situation might be found as New Yorkers deal with a Japanese man asking for directions in a pronounced Creole drawl. The Café Adriatico: We found a small table by a rain-streaked window overlooking the street. When our beers came, the waiter brandished a small towel and wiped clean the lip of the bottles. This was new to me: why would he do that? Noah explained that in the Philippines, a glass bottle is a commodity not to be wasted. Each bottle would be reused again and again. Indeed, I inspected the bottle and found two parallel rings of scratches around the outsides, and a faint rim of rust around the lip, where liquid beer had oxidized the metal bottle-cap. This rust was the offensive material wiped off by the waiter’s towel. Noah conducted a ranging monologue about his life in the Philippines, his village, his girlfriend, his work life. I was listening and drinking beer, gazing out the second story window into the rain, lit by a string of bulbs burning above Adriatico Street. We stayed up late into the night, sitting and talking at that table. I had not seen Noah in over two years, and though I had kept in touch with him by means of e-mail and writing letters, there was one aspect of his physical presence that I had forgotten. I refer to his laugh, which is a braying guffaw. In fact, it stretches the limits of the definition, to merely refer to his noise as laughter. Noah expresses mirth with a gasping honk, like an asthmatic donkey. It had not been my fortune to hear this laugh for 2 years, and judging from the reactions of the other patrons in the restaurant, no one there had ever heard anything like this before. Heads turned. I sipped some more from my bottle of beer, smiling at the scene.
Jogging in the Smog
Back to pension, sleep on dampish sheets in a dampish room. I woke up early in spite of only 3 hours sleep and whatever jet lag I was harboring. As Noah slept in, I engaged myself with a novel and by attempting to bird-watch from the barred window of the room. There was mystery out there in the morning Manila air, I thought. As I listened to sounds, I hypothesized what strange feathered creature might be making them. We went jogging that first morning. If you care for your lungs, do not attempt to go for a run on your first morning in Manila. We loped across town, breathing gross air, dodging holes in sidewalks, and in places where there weren’t any sidewalks, we shared the street with jeepneys. A jeepney is a vehicle unique to the Philippines. Mechanically, they are a cross between a bus and a jeep, but then decorated in hallucinogenic garishness. Images and slogans are plastered over every available surface, including the windshield. They proclaim the driver’s sexual prowess to the same significant extent that they exhort God to bless their trip. Each jeepney has a name, emblazoned in letters so extravagantly ornamented that they strain legibility. As we ran, I read the jeepneys: “Gift of God,” “Scorpio Boy,” “Virgin Snow,” “Fine Lover,” “May God Grant Us A Safe Journey.” Images of astrological signs, the Virgin Mary, and plagiarized commercial logos predominated, all rendered in the most eye-popping glossy colors known to science. There were numerous big hotels in the area, located there for the good view west over Manila Bay. As I ran, I wanted to look in a thousand directions at once: at the street-side spectacle around me, at the skyscrapers overhead, the whirring colors of the umpteen jeepneys, and even occasionally at the pocked street itself, so as to avoid tripping. We jogged through the mile-long Rizal Park, where practioners of tai chi and homeless men and women could be seen in equal measure. At the end of the park, a large square pool featured a model of the archipelago. Little chunky islands like paiper-maché demonstrated the diverse sizes and shapes of the 7107 bits of land that are designated as the Filipino nation. My love of maps was excited by this encounter with an acre-sized topography. I stopped my run and studied it for a few minutes. Large cone-like volcanoes rose from several of the islands, painted as if they were snowcapped, which they are certainly not. The islands of Luzon (where Manila is located) and Mindanao are the largest landmasses by a wide margin. Together, they comprise over 65% of the land area. A thousand of the smallest islands do not measure even one square kilometer; a further 2500 even lack names! When we got back to the Pension, I was raging hungry, and the food was slow to arrive. I had several cups of coffee and a pile of fruit. The mangos and bananas came with a nice local yogurt. This was to be our day of chores in Manila before venturing out the following morning to Noah’s “site.” For readers not familiar with Peace Corps, each volunteer is assigned for a two-year assignment at a particular job, in a particular town. The combination of address and job description is referred to as the volunteer’s site. After breakfast, Noah and I went to the Peace Corps offices on Roxas Boulevard. I checked my e-mail, and sent out notification to friends and relatives of my status. I mentioned the Hobbit House. I also amused myself by turning down an electronic party invitation with the unusual excuse that I was in Southeast Asia, sorry, can’t make it. We arranged a flight for the next day. The next task was to pick up Noah’s camera lenses, which had been dropped off for a cleaning several weeks previously. For this, we had to travel to a different part of Manila, the district of Cubao. A train ride was necessary to get to Cubao, some miles from the waterfront. The presence of terrorist cells in the Philippines have led to bag checks as a fact of life whenever entering a shopping mall, bank, or system of transport. I unpacked my bag to guards’ observation hundreds of times in the next month, resenting it every time. Of course, the events of September 11th have softened my resistance to security precautions. This was back in June and July, before the attacks in the US, but after the beheading of an American tourist on the Philippine island of Palawan.