Sunday, July 6, 2008

I: Uncomfortably familiar

I arrived in Manila yesterday (July 5) just before 6 a.m. Back home, it was still 3 in the afternoon on Independence Day. Right now, it's about 7 a.m. on Sunday, July 6. I am at the 5-star Shangri-La Hotel in Makati, where everyone calls you "maam" or "sir."

As soon as I got off the plane, I noticed the change in atmosphere immediately. Besides the humidity that was so thick that you could scoop it with a spoon, there was also something very different about the air. People in California are constantly talking about how bad the environment is over there, but believe me, you have no idea what bad air is until you come here. Not that I'm complaining... it's just an observation. I suppose that's going to be the main purpose of blogging while I'm here - which means I'll have to detract from my usual style of writing.

There's a very distinct smell to Manila. I'm not sure if it will be the same when I get to Boracay this afternoon... but it's a really strange scent. I don't mean to badmouth my home country, but to be honest, it's like a mixture of exhaust fumes and sewage. It's not that strong of a smell, but someone who's not used to it would definitely notice.

AT the airport, we spent about an hour waiting for our luggage. Something tells me that the luggage people were very inefficient. But that's beside the point. During that hour, I found myself looking for a bathroom, and here's where the subtle cultural differences begin to manifest themselves. I was roaming around the luggage area when I found a sign that said "toilets." So I went over to that hallway and saw a lady dressed in a security guard's outfit (similar to TSA in the U.S.). She made eye contact with me, smiled, bowed and motioned her arms in a graceful sweeping motion towards the ladies room. And so I followed. When I went out, she said "good morning maam" in the most fobulous accent ever.

Philippines has a gazillion service workers: from security guards, to people who actually help you take your luggage off the moving rack, to taxi drivers, to people who show you where the bathroom is, and hotel greeters. They're everywhere! And they seem to always be at arm's reach. I guess this is where the Filipino hospitality thing tends to show itself best if you've never had contact with a Filipino family. Everyone is very formal... it's always "sir" and "maam" so it's easy to feel high class.

But on the other side of things, the poor areas have their own characteristics. After we left the airport, we went to visit my grandmother - who lives in a small apartment in Mandaluyong. (All the places I've mentioned so far are within Metropolitan Manila.) During the taxi ride there, we stopped at a traffic light and I was shocked when a young, skinny girl came right up to the window of our van and began peeking in and knocking on the windows to beg for money. My mom said this was a normal thing in this part of MAnila. We drove past the shanty towns--which look just like they do on TV, and into a "better" area where my grandmother's apartment is.

It was a gated area. Still, the thing was tiny - and HOT. There was only air-conditioning in one room. And they scoop water from a bucket into the toilet to make it drain faster. The entire apartment (kitchen, living room, bathroom and 2 bedrooms) was probably the size of my living room and kitchen combined back home. If there's anything that could make me better appreciate what I have in California, it was seeing my grandmother in this apartment. Yet, it made her happy. This is where she grew up, and this was the life she knew best.

It was really weird to see her this way. I never got to see her in her normal environment because whenever she'd come to the US, she'd stay in our house. And seeing all the poor people around us in Manila was very humbling. To know that some of them were family members was even more humbling. It was like everything was so familiar, but so strange at the same time.

After spending my entire life arguing and being angry with my grandma, I've finally come to realize that life in Mandaluyong is enough to really toughen and harden someone. To me, she always seemed like a bitter old lady. But here, it made sense.

We only spent a few hours there - we were trying to kill some time before we could check into our hotel at 2 p.m. So we visited some other family - the details of which I'll have to recount later with the help of some pictures.

Around 1 p.m., we left Mandaluyong and made our way towards Makati. In stark contrast to where we just were- Makati is like Beverly Hills. There's a huge mall called the Glorietta (which still is just a fraction of Philippines' famous Mega Mall) that is like a maze of shops and eateries. People here love food - restaurants just may outnumber the retail shops in the malls. We also went to the Greenbelt - another partially open-air shopping strip that had very classy architecture with sculptures and fountains everywhere.

Before entering any mall, you have to go through a search post - a security guard with a metal detector scans you and you have to show the inside of your purse or backpack. It's like going through the security check at LAX.. but much quicker and without the X-Ray. Still, it's pretty ridiculous because i had to keep unzipping and zipping my camera bag.

The rent-a-cops in Simi wouldn't stand a chance against these guys. They're at the malls, at every major intersection directing traffic, and almost everywhere you look in public. This probably explains why major crime in the Philippines usually comes in the form of corruption.

So far, Manila has been a major mind-trip. I bought a pack of lucky strikes for about 46 pesos - just over $1. And that's on the expensive side - other ciggies can go for as low as 12 pesos. With 45 pesos to the dollar.... you do the math.
Also, the food here is amazing. Everything is so tasty and I have no idea why that is. It's like I got thousands of new tastebuds as soon as I landed here. We've eating pretty much the same kinds of filipino dishes my mom makes at home... but the flavors are so vivid. It's like seeing tv in technicolor for the first time, except with your mouth.

I'm about to go downstairs for breakfast soon and then we'll probably hang out until 11. We have to be at the domestic airport to catch our 1 pm flight to Boracay. White beaches, here I come.

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