Being allergic to crowded places, I was reluctant about visiting Manila and wanted to rush through it. It’s one of the most densely populated cities in the world, with about 12 million residents in the greater metro area. The description in the Lonely Planet alone was enough to dissuade me.
“Manila’s moniker, the ‘Pearl of the Orient,’ couldn’t be more apt – its cantankerous shell reveals its jewel only to those resolute enough to pry. No stranger to hardship, the city has endured every disaster both human and nature could throw at it, and yet today the chaotic metropolis thrives as a true asian megacity. Skyscrapers pierce the hazy sky, mushrooming from the grinding poverty of expansive shantytowns, while gleaming malls foreshadow Manila’s brave new air-conditioned world. The congested roads snarl with traffic, but, like the overworked arteries of a sweating giant, they are what keep this modern metropolis alive.”
Xiker, however, was adamant we should spend time in the capital, and he was right however much I didn’t wanna admit it. Oftentimes capital cities are microcosms of the nation, reflecting its prosperity and its ambitions, its social values and, well, a whole bunch of other stuff. On top of that, Manila has endured through an expansive history, full of riches and tragedy.
We spent three days here before heading down to Southeast Luzon. Wandered the streets, checked out Intramuros like all good tourists should, took refuge from the oppressive humidity in air-conditioned stores whenever we were about to drop dead… But the best part of our visit was meeting the effusive people of Chinatown—meet them here.
Whether it was a mistake or not, we still can’t decide, but staying in Ermita/Malate wasn’t a good introduction. There were other neighborhoods to choose from, either far from the city center (Cubao, Quezon City or Pasay) or in a posh neighborhood (Makati) where one night’s stay in a hotel would put a serious dent in our daily budget. Historical Intramuros is also in the heart of the city, but hotel prices didn’t suit our budget either, so Malate it was. (We relocated to a hotel in Ermita after one unsatisfactory night in Malate.)
We arrived late at night from Urbiztondo and headed on over to Remedios Circle—the center of Malate—where we were told we’d find cheap hotels and bars aplenty. The hotels weren’t as cheap as we hoped (we weren’t surprised) but I was appalled at the thick layer of sleaze coating everything in the area. Scantily clad women stood outside clubs and entertainment lounges to lure in customers, and Western men—presumably not yet inebriated enough— lined the street eateries as they sized up local women/ladyboys milling around looking for potential sugar daddies.
The next morning, when the sun was shedding light into the shadows and while the late-night prowlers were sleeping off their hangovers, the streets were no less filthy, hungry and homeless people were no less abundant.
Ermita and Malate is touted as a tourist destination by several different travel sources, and claims to offer a variety of entertainment, but I must’ve been too distracted to find them…
Remedios Circle is apparently now an unofficial shelter for the homeless, as a hundred people are sharing the cement park as a living space. Much of the streets around it are fetid with piles of rotting trash and the nearby Baywalk offers no respite from the stink. Flea-bitten dogs limp around foraging for food alongside yellow-eyed children, and judging from the way skeletal people tote around full but light bags, recyclable plastic is considered a precious commodity.
I was furthermore bewildered to see that Malate (and Ermita) is home to hundreds of money changing businesses—there are at least 5 on each block alone—which must mean there is a considerable amount of cash money floating around in these two neighborhoods.
Xiker struck up a conversation with a coupla guys working at the doors of their respective money changing shops (their jobs were to open doors and to help those with cars with parking) and they said around 50 million dollars come into the neighborhood each working day. THIS neighborhood. Who knows how many other money changers there are in other neighborhoods?
Shocking for me, but not so unbelievable, when factoring in all the potential sources. Many of the Filipinos working abroad either wire money home, and others need to convert their earnings into pesos. According to the door guys, US dollars and Japanese yen are the two most common forms of foreign currency circulating the neighborhood.
Also, there are plenty of tourists who come to the Philippines with lots of cash on hand, some preferring to avoid the possibility of being monitored via digital transactions, for whatever reason (though you and I could probably guess at a few reasons).
Brings to mind an aforementioned sentence from the LP description of Manila: “skyscrapers pierce the hazy sky, mushrooming from the grinding poverty of expansive shantytowns…”
Well, the one pearl I did find in the Malate/Ermita neighborhood was the enormous Robinson Mall. Normally I sneer at malls, but in this case I was in love. In love with one thing only, actually (besides the air-conditioner).
The self-serve salad bar inside the Robinson food store was absolute heaven after weeks and weeks of eating nothing but meat and a very few cuts of vegetables. The mango vinaigrette was to die for, and I dragged Xiker back time and time again just to nourish my vegetable-starved body. Actually, Xiker went willingly, perfectly happy to buy fresh-baked bread and stuff vegetables in there for a veggie sandwich.
And now, without further ado, documentation of our foray into the center of Manila: