Saturday, March 15, 2014

Manila, Philippines

When I closed to within a couple hundred miles of Manila and began telling people that was my next destination I'd occasionally ask, "What should I see there?"  No one had a ready response except a couple of young women who excitedly blurted, "The Mall of Asia."

I hadn't come to the Philippines to go to the mall.  I could understand why it could have an attraction for young women in the hinterlands, but hardly for me...that is until I arrived in the big city and began wilting from the heat and choking on the stew of the stench that hung heavy in the air and was overcome by the noise and fumes of the traffic clogged streets.

Even before I found a hotel my throat and lungs were stinging from the polluted air and my nose was burning from the strong odor of raw sewage and urine and thick exhaust spewing out of the many jeepneys.  The homeless were sprawled everywhere, even along the main boulevard hugging the Bay of Manila.

Little kids had their hands out wherever one looked.

I had three days to explore the city before my flight home, but I knew from my previous two brief visits  passing through earlier in these travels that pollution, traffic, noise and poverty were the dominant features of this city of twelve million and would be hard to escape. I wasn't sure if I wanted to go back out into it once I had checked into a hotel. One of the things I was looking forward to was the sanctuary of a movie theater, a pleasure I had yet to experience in the Philippines.  

I learned from a cyclist I met while drinking an ice-filled cup of Gatorade at a 7-Eleven that there are multiplexes at the malls and that the nearby Robinson Mall was his preference as it provided bike parking. He was another of the many ardent and generous cyclists I've encountered on this trip.  He had a spare reflective wrap that one can place around one's ankle that he gave me.  He was a ship's navigator and had traveled the world.  His bike accompanied him on his voyages and he used it as often as he could. 

With his news of bike parking and cinema at the mall a few blocks away, all of a sudden the mall became my promised land.  I'm not sure which I welcomed most when I walked through its doors after being checked by a security guard, the cool air or the clean air.  It wasn't particularly quiet, as it was thronged by people, but at least the noise wasn't the roar of jeepneys.

It was a considerable hike and then climb up three floors to the theaters, but it was a relief to be in a clean, semi-orderly universe and amongst relatively well-dressed and beaming consumers.  This was an oasis and sanctuary for all of us.

I had seven movies to choose from, all recent Hollywood fare.  The only one I was familiar with was "Non-Stop," a Liam Nesson air marshall thriller that was very topical with the recent disappearance of the Malaysian jet.  But when I noticed Colin Firth and Reese Winterspoon on the poster for "Devil's Knot" and that it was directed by Atom Egoyan, that had to be my choice.  At first I thought I was going to get in free when I saw a notice on the box office stating that seniors were given free admission on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, but then I looked closer and saw it only applied to residents of Manila.

After I slipped into my seat I could have been back home, at least until the commercials and public service announcements began, preceding the trailers.  One was devoted to an award-winning local artist who designed wicker furniture.  It concluded with "once again he proves Filipinos can conquer the world."  Another spot encouraged people to read English newspapers to improve their English and ended with the slogan "Filipinos can be better."

The movie was the true story already recounted in several documentaries of the trial of three teens in 1992 in Arkansas for the murder of three eight year olds. The teens were wrongly convicted in a sensationalistic trial that painted them as Satanists.  It bore little evidence of an Egoyan movie, virtually devoid of any of his early distinctive style that won him accolades from cineastes and that hasn't been evident in his last few films.  Firth seemed to be the only one who much cared about his role and gave more than a perfunctory performance.  Still, it was nice to be in the familiar embrace of the world of cinema, especially with Cannes less than two months away.

Manila's less than desirable, and well nigh repellent, cycling conditions couldn't make me totally forsake the bike.  But rather than meandering all day exploring the city, as I would have liked to have done, I restricted myself to just a few hours, though I did manage nearly forty miles on a day when I ventured to the neighboring Catholic and Chinese cemeteries.  They were both refreshingly quiet, traffic-free retreats full of grand mausoleums.  Although they shared a wall, they had separate entrances.  Both were a challenge to find, padding my mileage for the day.

The Chinese cemetery was much better maintained than the Catholic cemetery. 

Many of its tombs looked like luxury condos.

There was more wild extravagance on the Catholic side.

Some of he tombs had shelters providing shade from the hellish heat.

My sight-seeing also included the city's World Heritage San Augustin Cathedral, the oldest in the country built between 1587 and 1606.  It has survived seven major earthquakes.

It is within the old walled city of Intramuros that also contains the prison where Jose Rizal was held before his execution.  Nearby is a statute of him holding an open book.

His cell, like that of Nelson Mandela's outside of Cape Town, is a national shrine. Free tours are given of the site.  My guide was a very enthusiastic young devotee of Rizal, who acted as if it was a privilege to be able to share all he knew about his hero.  Among the artifacts on display was a ten pound dumbbell that he used to strengthen himself when he was a young man.  He was only 5'2" and wanted to bulk himself up a bit.  His museum also contained original copies of the two novels he wrote castigating the Spanish, both written abroad.  They are read by every Filipino in high school. Rizal was inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" to use the novel as a means to galvanize his countrymen against the Spanish.  He was just 36 when he was executed.  My guide said that Rizal never married, though there is reason to believe he wed his Irish girl friend an hour before he was executed.  She was one of many foreign girl friends he had from his years of living abroad.

I concluded my exploration of the city with a visit to the gargantuan Mall of Asia, a virtual Disney World of hundreds, actually thousands, of shops in several huge adjoining malls.  

It was another of the many Filipino sites I have come upon that was beyond imagining.  It was so ambitious and sprawling, it seemed something the Chinese would have devised.  And on a Saturday it was absolutely mobbed.  Swarms and swarms of jeepneys were dispensing full loads of passengers.  It was too overwhelming to wander by foot, but had walkways that I could cycle, the only one doing so.  It contained an ice skating rink and casino and IMAX along with seven regular theaters.  Countless food and drink stands lined the passages.  It was on a different planet from the city on the other side of the main boulevard of Roxas.  It was part of a monumental development with amusement parks and other attractions along the Bay that made Manila seem more livable.  It was a mile from a Cultural Center that Imelda Marcos led the construction of in 1966 shortly after her husband became president. And just beyond it was a one mile strip along the Bay with a bicycle path and palm trees and benches. It was scattered with homeless and people with cardboard signs offering massages.  Like much of the Philippines, the extremes of wealth and dire poverty were cheek by jowl.

The heavily polluted air provides technicolor sunsets out over the bay, but clouds deprived me of any my three final evenings in the country.  But I hardly felt deprived having been treated to so many other delights including a fine evening with a college professor who Janina met at a conference for art critics in Washington D.C. in 2009.  Sharon was a high school student during the final days of Marcos' presidency and was among the mobs who stormed his palace demanding his ouster.  She gave me a broad list of books to read on the Philippines to help me put my 2,000 miles of cycling around the country into perspective.  One that may not be so easy to find is a PhD dissertation on the thousands of statues of Rizla and the significance of his many poses.


dworker said...

Manilla sounds much worse than Bangkok to ride.

george christensen said...

Dwight: If you were to cycle the Philippines, you'd continually be asking yourself,"What am I doing here. I'd much rather be in Thailand," unless you could maintain an attitude of wanting to experience something you hadn't before and didn't mind roughing it. Or you could wait until the Philippines ban the jeepney. They are certainly a scourge, clogging urban roads and spewing horrid fumes.