Some places stick with you long after you leave them, but not many literally stick to you. Manila does. Bum around the metro for a few days and you’ll be picking the city out of your fingernails and rubbing it from your eyes, coughing back up all the black poison air you’ve swallowed.
Last week I stood at the border between Manila and the Outside. The boundary should have been invisible, just a line on a political map, but in actuality it was all too clear. What I saw: on one side of me, a brilliant blue sky spotted by a few bright scudding clouds; on the other, a forbidding dark grey wall of smog, solid as any of the concrete and steel that’s been haphazardly thrown up on what used to be a jungle island.
Much of the steel goes to Makati. This is the district of Metro Manila where the rich people live. There’s no wall around Makati, but in my head I always imagine it as having one. When Typhoon Ondoy hit in September, one national newspaper devoted a large article to a big-name Filipino actor puttering around in his boat and saving people. Reminds me of Sean Penn in New Orleans after Katrina – except that the people this guy was “saving” were his equally famous and rich actor friends. Salamat sa Dyos!
Outside of the delusion district, Manila is one big reality. It’s dirty, certainly, but not dirty in any conventional way: there’s something sticky and unwashable about the filth in Manila, a tropical adhesion which coats the jagged sidewalks that look vomited up by some cement volcano, the few sad and scraggly trees, the glossy posters advertising the girls at a GRO bar. The madly colored jeepneys can’t escape it, and even that other universe, the domain of those with means, is stained with it – glance up at the Hyatt hotel in Malate during daytime and you’ll see what the flashy neon distracts you from at night: a creeping, insidious blackness spreading across the flat, dull facade. The desperation of the streets has become too dense, and can only diffuse upwards.
Those streets look bad and smell worse, bathed in a solution of chunky stagnant water and urine, spotted with dead dogs, live rats and human excrement. They are a home for many, and I know I’m trespassing when I step over sleeping bodies on my way to buy my coffee or take pictures with my expensive camera. As an American, as a white person, I don’t belong here.
But: as an American, as a white person, I do. Manila is a terrible place for many Filipinos, but a haven for all those westerners looking for kicks. As I’m browsing the ubiquitous stands of pirated movies, often the first thing I’m asked is “Porn, sir?” When I’m offered a woman – if the seller is discreet; sometimes they’re blunter about the services they’re peddling – how can I tell them that I’m not interested, that I’m not one of them? A few dozen years, many pounds and a significant amount of personal grooming might differentiate me from the grubby old white men looking for a young Filipina to wrap themselves around, but to many Manileños there’s no difference at all. If I’m not interested, maybe I’m just being superior; if I can’t spare a coin for a begging street kid, maybe I’m just being greedy.
Begging? Not good enough in Manila. In a land of so many competing have-nots, even the penniless and powerless must have something to sell – broken trinkets, wood carvings, dejected flowers.
One of my favorite images of the Philippines involves a child and a flower: in a park in Iloilo, I watched as a little girl spied a pretty flower on the ground and tottered over to investigate. Her irritated mother called her, but the girl ignored the shrill, annoyed noise: she had something more interesting to heed. The most important thing in her world at that moment was admiring a flower, and I envied her singlemindedness.
And one of my least favorite images of the Philippines involves a child and a flower: they were both on the wrong side of a taxi window. The girl, standing with torrential Manila rain running down her ragged long hair, beckoned for me to buy her soaking sampaguita flowers. The cabbie reached back and locked my door, and I looked away: just another smogtown baby drowning.
I’ve complained often about a lack of privacy in the Philippines, but my life is shuttered and soundproof compared to the drama staged every day in the streets of the capital. Countless times I’ve ducked my head away from something I’ve seen, something my western mind views as shameful. I quicken my step and mutter an apology when I turn a corner and a woman is defecating on the sidewalk in front of me; I avert my eyes and scuttle by the old man taking a bath from a public faucet along the baywalk.
And they are shameful, these things: not the fact that they are done but because they are done out of necessity, a lack of choice. Confined to malnourishment, illness, poverty, the poor of Manila’s ignored and unpoliced streets face only one law, that of mandatory debasement.