Memoirs of a Philippine Mongerer
Manila or bust
A “service” to Manila, now there’s a thought I said to myself. I looked at the guard and tentatively inquired how much is your “brothers service”? A nod is as good as a wink for the Filipinos and straight away this guard knew he had me hook line and sinker, but to his credit he played it cool and showed only minimal interest. Some Filipinos know that if they come on to strong or appear to keen the foreigners guard goes up, but this guy was just perfect, Looking back I should have taken him to play poker at the casino, but I was young and inexperienced so for him I was easy pickings. The guard knowing that he had got me replied, “sir Martin, my brother nice service and cost something like 800 to Manila”. Upon hearing his answer I started doing the mental arithmetic in my mind. I figured a trike to the bus was probably 100 the bus itself was another 120 and the taxi in Manila was another 200 total plus allowing for another 100 for food and drink during the arduous journey. Total to Manila 520 on the bus versus 800 for a personally driven car with decent air conditioning, far fewer people and probably quicker. I weighed the options in my mind and figured it was much better to brave the endless Manila traffic from the comfort of an air conditioned car, and since it was only 280 peso more why not spoil myself.
With the deal done the guard smiled at me and said “for a while sir”, then scurried inside to the receptionist desk where he made a phone call presumably to his brother the driver then strolled back and said, “ten minutes sir”. Now I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the concept of Filipino time but basically put it means they are always late, and the ten minutes will be more like twenty. At the time I was still a novice so I took him literally, smiled and sat down on the steps of the Maharajah waiting for the transport to arrive. I sat there for what must have been about 15 minutes and just as I was about to inquire of the guard where the driver was a when beat up old Tamaraw entered the driveway and the guard proudly announced “my brother here now”.
There is a great song by one of my favorite artists, Gary Clark Jr, that goes something like this “bright lights big city, you’re going to know my name” which exactly summed up my feelings about Manila. The lights weren’t so bright because of the perpetual layer of smog that hung over the city, but in Manila there was that unmistakable vibe, a sleazy yet tremendously alluring and intoxicating buzz, that attracted sex tourists from all corners of the globe. Manila was the sort of city where people from all walks of life would rub shoulders, it was a place where one could get lost whether one wanted to or not. It was a place where one had to struggle to make himself known, to stand out, or else go unnoticed and uncared for, lost in the swathe of humanity. This was a broiling hotpot simmering in a sauce of contradictions. This city was a mix of sex, poverty, hatred, and hardship, juxtaposed with a brilliant nightlife, a fast paced social scene, conspicuous wealth, and ironically, real friendships.
The Tamaraw was not exactly what I would call the epitome of modern motor vehicles, in fact it was a dilapidated old bomb but the guard seemed inordinately impressed and swore that it would get me down to Manila “walang problema”. I looked at the obsequious driver, looked at the van and thought to myself, it’s to late to go back on my decision now and besides this could be an interesting adventure. I climbed in the front seat asked the driver to crank up the rickety old air conditioner and with a cheerful smile and a wave to the Maharajah guard, we were on our way.
One thing I have noticed about Filipinos is that once they have a material possession such as a car they will run it until it can’t be run anymore. In western countries a new car is normally good for 2 or 3 years then its time to upgrade by purchasing a new car, but in the Philippines the opposite is true. The idea is to get maximum usage out of the vehicle and spend as little on maintenance as humanly possible.
This particular car was a classic example of that philosophy and as we negotiated the bumps and ditches with the suspension creaking in pain, I wondered if we would ever make it down to Manila. The driver whose name was James did not seem to share my concerns and he seemed oblivious of the cars condition as he merrily hummed along to some ancient love song that was blaring from the radio. We traveled for about half an hour through what resembled what I thought of us a lunar landscape. Huge hills of lahar dwarfed the van and the road was a dusty pothole ridden trail, more suited to four wheel drives and lunar surface vehicles than an ancient diesel Tamaraw. To be honest I was quite apprehensive but James seemed oblivious to my concerns and seemed to negotiate his way without a care in the world.
Finally after what seemed like a lifetime we hit the asphalt covered highway and I began to relax, or so I thought. Back then the NLEX didn’t exist. It was merely called the National Highway which is by far a more accurate description than an expressway. All the way to San Fernando it was a single carriage way road and of course the traffic was a nightmare. It seemed no matter what time of day or night, this road was always busy. The main cars seemed to be vans and owner type jeeps with the occasional Mitsubishi Lancer thrown in. But no matter what your car one thing was for sure, the busses ruled the road. If you have ever done some road traveling in the Philippines you will know exactly what I mean when I say the busses are kings of the road. Traveling by road in the Philippines today is a precarious adventure but back then it was nothing short of a life and death adventure. The busses were the biggest vehicles on the road and they knew it. They would overtake seemingly at will continuously forcing on coming traffic off the road. While overtaking and occupying the other lane they would flash their lights at on coming cars as if to say, hey I’m bigger than you so get out of the way. Somehow Filipinos seem to think that flashing their lights automatically gives them the right of way even though they are on the wrong side of the road. Upon reflection I wonder why there aren’t more fatalities on the roads and I guess the answer is the drivers all seem to subliminally understand how things work and act accordingly.
As we reached San Fernando James announced “Sir I get diesel but you be the one to pay”. I asked why should I pay to which he replied, “because you are my passenger sir”. I thought to myself that’s exactly right and that’s why I shouldn’t have to pay but with true Filipino logic he seemed convinced that my status as a passenger meant that I would foot the bill. Rather than press the issue I decided to go with the flow and asked him how much will you need to which he replied, “maybe 300 piso like that Sir”. We pulled into a gas station where he pumped 300 piso worth of diesel into the tank and in under a couple of minutes we hit the road again heading towards the big smoke Manila.
While in the Tamaraw the time seemed to pass so slowly and it wasn’t long before I began to feel drowsy despite the Kamikaze bus drivers. I think I must have nodded off because next thing I knew the Tamaraw had pulled over and we were stationary on the roads shoulder with a load of Filipino families climbing into the back of the van. I thought to myself this is a bit weird and asked James, “why are we taking on more passengers” to which he replied, “I am the service Sir”. Within minutes we were on the way again except now with a horde of jabbering Filipino families in the back. Everywhere you go in the Philippines it seems that there are always children present and this situation was no exception. The adults were vaguely intrigued by my presence and I am sure they were commenting about me in Tagalog but the kids were literally transfixed. They couldn’t keep their eyes of me and then it dawned on me that I was quite possibly the first white man they had seen in real life.
Being the object of curiosity wasn’t exactly a first for me since in my time I had done a fair bit of traveling but these children took it to a whole new level. I could feel their stares drilling holes in the back of my head so I turned round to face them and said, “hello my name is Martin”. This sudden yet friendly approach seemed to set the kids back a little bit but one little boy overcame his shyness and replied in halting English, “same same name as singer”. He was referring to Martin Rivera but at the time I had no idea who Martin Rivera was so I simply smiled and said, “yes me famous singer but not in Philippines”. Upon hearing this and deciding this was obviously my feeble attempt at humor they seemed to relax somewhat and next thing I knew I was involved in a halting dialogue with these people telling them about my life and learning about theirs.
It was during this conversation that I decided once again English is a wonderful language. I mean here I was thousands of miles from my homeland in the middle of nowhere making new friends with people whose world was totally different from mine except for one common bond, that of the ability to communicate in English, albeit in a very limited way. I am not sure how long we conversed and I am certainly not sure how much of what I was saying they understood but it certainly helped to pass the time while traveling to Manila.
We must have traveled about 20 kilometers when James pulled over to the side of the road again and the Filipino men handed him ten peso each before disembarking. After they got out the entire group stood at the side of the road, smiled waved and said, “goodbye Martin”. This event epitomized to me one of the aspects of Filipinos that I really admire. They seem to have a genuine friendly streak, a natural curiosity, and the ability to accept people who are completely different to them. Of course this does not apply to all Filipinos but generally speaking among the poorer provincial people this is often the case.
From Venezuela to the Balintawak toll gate we were in virtually grid locked traffic but James seemed unperturbed as he sand along to Air Supply and songs from Bread. At this stage I was having visions of the old Tamaraw overheating and us being stuck on the highway breathing in the thick layer of carbon dioxide that gushed forth from the seemingly never ending procession of traffic but James was oblivious to my fears and carried on without a care in the world.
Getting through Manila was not exactly precarious because the traffic was so dense vehicles never got a chance to build up any speed. While traveling through Manila I got a chance to observe what this city was really like and the diversity of it really hit home. In some sections there were beggars in squalid rags knocking on car windows with eyes reflecting the drudgery and pain of every day life, there were heavy industrial areas where people worked 12 hour days for a handful of worthless pesos, and there were crime ridden areas where ones life could be snuffed out like a candle, Everywhere I looked drab grey concrete buildings with a layer of grime seemed to proliferate and hanging over everything was the omnipresent humidity and heat.
Life was hard in Manila, and observing how people lived here, I was reminded how privileged my childhood had been. After about an hour of traveling through the city we arrived at the MayFair on Mabini Street and I instantly felt a sigh of relief that I had actually made it without any major mishap. I paid James his 800, hefted my bag onto my shoulder and made my way into the Mayfair courtyard where I settled down to a nice cool Mango shake.
The Mango shake was excellent and I sat there just chilling, perfectly content with everything in my little world until a rather loud voice woke me from my reverie and I looked up to see a smiling David Goldshaft saying, “mate your mother has rung three times looking for you. I think you better get on the blower and see what’s up”.