I arrived at Ninoy Aquino International Airport after a 15-hour aerial adventure spanning practically the entire width of the Pacific Ocean. The flight was long, but pleasant. I sat next to two very nice ladies – a Swiss retiree living in Baguio who spoke English with a Filipino accent, and a Filipina-Americana mom visiting her folks in Quezon City.
Once we hit the ground (two hours ahead of schedule), I realized that it was raining very hard, which is quite unusual for October in the Philippines. It was warm rain that did nothing to shield us from the stifling heat and humidity. I could feel the stickiness even while inside the airport as I walked through the usual checkpoints to baggage claim with my Lolas, who had traveled with me from San Francisco.
Baggage claim was a mad house. Swarms of Filipinos crowding around the claim belt. An armada of wheelchair-armed elderly folk waiting patiently behind. Servicemen talking, running around with bags. Not exactly the calm scene I am used to at American airports.
The waiting area outside of baggage claim was even crazier. Hundreds of people packed up against a fence, waiting for their friends and relatives to come out. Cars honking, speeding by the curb, more servicemen running around, lending a very useful hand. It was hot, sticky, and more chaotic than I expected it would be. So is Manila, I suppose. My bubbly Tita Florence picked me up and we headed off into the city.
Driving through Manila is like traveling across the entire spectrum of human existence. Going through the heart of Manila, we passed over dirty roads through squalid squatter areas, like the one flanking the Pasig River on the way to Roxas Blvd., the thoroughfare that runs through Manila itself. Dilapidated buildings and people stand forgotten on the side of the street. Driving on Roxas Blvd., the buildings gets less dirty, but are still dilapidated.
As we merge onto the thoroughfare that takes you through the heart of Metro Manila, Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA), the landscape starts to shift. Driving along under the rails of the MRT lightrail, we move through a new world, a new time. On your left you see Makati City, with its posh high-rises, elite neighborhoods, and multinational corporation headquarters. Makati is so clean and shiny that you can hardly believe it sits so close to the seedy stretches of Manila.
It’s easy to miss all these shifts if you happen to be driving the car, because it takes an extreme amount of attention and skill to avoid becoming scrap metal on the hectic streets of Metro Manila. The traffic early in the morning was not that bad, so I did not experience the legendary EDSA gridlock. I was not, however, spared much action. Cars cut sharply into the lane without warning. For no reason at all, automobiles flanked two lanes of traffic. People speed by, make dangerous turns, and blare their horns mercilessly. If a state of nature still truly exists on this world, it exists on the streets of Manila.
Continuing on EDSA through Mandaluyong towards Quezon City, you see skyscrapers, condominiums, and massive malls. The malls in particular can look so out of place at some sections, grandiose and immaculate on the side of dirty, muddy streets. Philippine malls are truly a sight to behold – they are so large and popular compared to even some of the premiere American malls. The great irony of some of the higher end malls is that the droves of people walking through the shops cannot afford anything – they are merely trying to escape the heat via the mall’s air conditioning system.
During the next few days I will be staying in a hotel before getting more permanently settled. The hotel is nice, with all the amenities you could possibly need and with the standard, super-attentive Filipino hospitality workers. From my room I have a wonderful view of Metro Manila, the sprawling metropolis filled with skyscrapers, homes, greenery, construction, destruction, squalor, and beauty. As I watch the cars and trains move by on EDSA, it is almost as if I am feeling the pulse of Manila, its hypertensive, irregular heart beat, through my eyes. This is a city pulsing with an immeasurable amount of possibility, where you can do anything, and anything can happen to you.
Manila is alive.