Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Act Two: Up Manila Down

(I’m lump-summing my vacation days and taking a three-week-plus trip around Luzon and the Visayas. Instead of synthesizing it all and writing a complete travelogue, I’m taking the easy way out and just posting notes I jotted down along the way. They’re grouped by location and are not necessarily chronological.

Part Two: the sights from Manila to Pagudpud and back.)

Early Beatles is drifting in through muffled speakers; posters of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean cover the walls, reflecting off their glossy surfaces the red and green neon thrown out by the tubes that run across the perimeter of the room. It’s an American diner stuck in the middle of Ilocos Norte. I wonder how many patrons at Macy’s Diner in Laoag could identify Marilyn or George Harrison, explain Route 66’s impact on the American psyche, or locate Sunset Boulevard or Rodeo Drive on a map? Yet they’re all represented here, and in perfect vintage style. Old advertisements for Coca-Cola, Lifesavers, motorcycles and other Americana – what could they possibly signify to Filipinos? If anything they’re reminders of the country’s colonized history. But maybe I’m thinking too critically, and the poster for It’s a Wonderful Life is just a goofy oddity for locals to wonder about, and all the names that define nostalgia in American pop culture – Natalie Wood, James Stewart, Liz Taylor – are as meaningless to a Filipino as Piolo Pascual to a young American.

The entranceway is dimly lighted and confusing metal objects line the ways like medieval weaponry. A resonant high voice intones choral strains. (A large air conditioner stands in one corner.) In the main room, the low lighting is directed towards the glass cubicle in the center. (A good thing, because the arrangement at its base looks like a misguided attempt at feng shui.) And inside the glass, resting on mattress and satin pillow, is the proud preserved body of Ferdinand Marcos. (His fingers look carved from Play-Doh.) Reposing in this quiet shrine, Marcos is free from vexing questions about his legacy. (Especially since, like most things in the Philippines, the mausoleum in Batac is poorly marked and obscured by large campaign posters.)

I’m instantly in love with Cafe Leona, a Filipino/Japanese/Italian place near Vigan’s plaza – it’s what I imagine an old-world bistro should be like, although I should try the food before I speak too hastily (and on a whim I ordered sisig – pork cheeks – which I could love or hate). Vigan itself is the opposite, its entry roads choked with tricycles and in a beautiful old building at a fork in the road, instead of a wine house or cafe converted from a brothel, squats a Max’s fried chicken joint. But I haven’t seen much yet, and some areas are apparently off limits except to foot traffic, so I’ll see where I am after an afternoon of wandering.

I don’t know anything about it but it doesn’t appeal to me” – old white guy at Cafe Leona’s next table; story of the west? Or all civilization?

Embarking on the last stage of the journey before Manila Redux – heading to Baguio soon on a wing, a prayer and an aircon bus. Vigan I’m split about: the one cobblestone street remaining is nice but it’s really just a long line of tourist souvenir shops (as in any resort town in America) – and there are plenty of gorgeous old buildings extant but that can’t last – they’ll either become bona fide ruins or they’ll be restored with gleaming fake facade, vintage 2000s. And of course everything is a reminder of the days of Spanish colonization. It’s perverse, really, to celebrate the legacy of European/American imperialism – the trick is to take it on its own merits, I suppose, but nonetheless it’s tough to separate the results from the crippling process.

I’m looking forward to Baguio just for a break from the heat if nothing else – and maybe it’ll be good to be settled for a couple days, all this one-night bouncing around has given me a feeling weirdly akin to restlessness but exactly opposite – or maybe I’ll just be bored out of my mind and spend lots of money on food and coffee – difficult to predict.

Baguio immediately gave me a weird uneasy feeling with its climbing hills and stairways leading off to unknown grottoes – I think this combined with the surprising crush of people (& it didn’t help that I arrived just as school got out of session, forcing me to battle highschoolers for the right to the sidewalk) made it feel very constricting and closed-in. But after I checked in at the mouse-warren-like Diamond Inn (through the night I could hear every footstep on the floor above, and dimensions seemed even further reduced from their standard three-quarters-American ratio) and stepped out again into the cool bustling night, I mostly changed my mind. Moreso than Iloilo, Baguio feels like a city – like things are happening – and in this place carved out of mountains, the absurdity of the neon just confirms that against all odds and logic, something is working.

From my breakfast vantage point on Session Road I have a straight-on view out the front door and the milling (not a verb I use often in the Philippines) people flashing by the door on a slant – those on the right several feet lower than on the left – texting and talking and some bundled up against the chill although it left the air some time ago – across the street a 7-Eleven “BIG BANG BINGO” the banner above the entryway is red and loud yellow – on either side a KFC and Western Union, with the graded streets I could almost believe I’m in San Francisco (every hilly city reminds me of iconic San Francisco – just as every skyscraper reminds me of New York – the same old comparisons, same old archetypes) – the world is one of each thing doomed to repeat itself endlessly? I hope not, I’ve got a lot left to see

Here in Starbucks a queer menagerie of international types from the South Asian students studying intently at the table behind to the European man speaking with perhaps an Italian lilt to his Filipina wife. My head turns shamefully at every American accent and typically finds only an older white man. Across the cafe floor a wrinkled elder speaks a croaking language all his own as he drinks his tea, and of course stray Tagalog floats overhead like dragonflies. In my little corner I’ve said not a word for two hours, and my companion, a young Asian student, has kept an identical silence in front of her computer for almost as long. Ours is also a language.

Sitting at Cafe by the Ruins and when I walked in Dylan was playing, a good sign. But it’s very expensive by my standards and I’ll have to withdraw money today to get back to Manila. Still, traveling has certainly been cheap from an American point of view, with my priciest room being 8usd (in Vigan) and having spent (once I pay for my last bus to Manila) something less than 40usd for transport to explore much of Luzon. Food and coffee of course have been the unpredictable expenses and as much as I want to save money, food has charms to soothe my conscience over spending up to $5 a meal.

Reflection in a motorbike helmet
Japan in November will be a shock (as Hawai’i was to some extent) when everything will be full-or-more price – no more dirt-cheap pensions or $.50 meals, at least until I get back to SE Asia. And Taiwan after Japan, and Hong Kong yet – if I end up going to these places at all – Act I of post-PC is going to be a drain.

Tilted mountains are skewing my eyes – I looked to the blue beyond the peaks and couldn’t tell if I was seeing sky or ocean

IMG_2570 - 2
(I artificially lightened this photo.)
One more long busride before I’m back where I started, and after everything so far I have to say the buses have been one of my favorite parts of the journey. Cruising by rice fields and green hills, swerving around blind corners when suddenly the coast appears like a dream – taking photos through the natural sepia filter of an ancient window – filling the hours with slow thoughts. Buses are inelegant, clunky, temperamental like humans and unreliable – all the way from Pagudpud to Laoag I held my window open with my hand after the latch broke – and sometimes they provide their own interest when the show outside starts to repeat.



Lillian said...

Your blog is beautiful, Ryan. Thanks for an interesting (and honest) look into a country that I'll be calling home soon. I'll be reading.

Ryan Murphy said...

Thanks, Lillian. It looks like I'll be helping with your Initial Orientation in a few weeks, so I'll get to meet you guys before too long.