An epistle to Manila + The Thalkars visit the Philippines
I owe you an apology. We’ve spent a lot of time together lately, you and I. There were your usual signs of affection – char marks on every napkin I wipe my nose with, money that mysteriously disappears, street kids that simultaneously break and uplift my heart with their smiles – but something else has developed between us. Something a little more serious, a little more sincere.
I judged you quickly when I got to the Philippines. You were big and crowded and scary and dirty – Jesus, your filth – and it seemed like every part of you was broken. The breeze from your bay carries a stench unlike anything I’ve come across before. Your sidewalks were crowded with poverty and depression. Your malls harbored prostitutes and an affluence (or illusion thereof) that still makes me uncomfortable. Your taxi drivers seemed like they always wanted to rip me off. Jeepney drivers yelled at me. It seemed like the city was always yelling at me.
So I hid myself from you. I hid in the Pension, venturing out only for beer and food, which I promptly brought back to its comforting warmth. We went on this way for a year. Co-existing, sort of, during my intermittent trips south. You kept shouting, trying to get my attention, and I kept blocking out the noise. Even when I visited you, it was as though I wasn’t really there. We’d awkwardly bump into each other, briefly, at a bar or a hooka joint, but then I’d go back to ignoring you as best I could. You intimidated me, Manila.
But things have changed, recently. I started paying attention to the pieces that create the cacophony that is you, feeling out your rhythm, and I discovered something. You’re just as confused and alive and effervescent as I am. You have taxi drivers who genuinely light up when talking about how they’re putting their kids through college. Jeepney drivers who drive with one arm over their sons as they describe the map of the city. You have treasures of restaurants hidden behind gas stations and in alleys and in plain sight at malls, and it’s good to just sit in them and watch the eclectic visitors you attract. You have bakla bars and dance clubs and cramped little places where you’re forced to meet new people and end up sharing drinks and stories with them. You have cupcake shops and dirty ice cream and fruit sold on street corners that somehow tastes more refreshing than anywhere else. And that’s all beautiful, but hardly unique to you. It’s when you put it all together, when you pay attention to what happens as you travel from point A to point B, that your essence starts to come through. And that heart, Manila, is what makes you unique.
During the twilight hours, the in-between time that could be either late at night or early in the morning, you bare yourself. You’re all billboards plastered with the images of white people and casinos that belong in Vegas and opulent malls that seemingly have no right to belong in a third world country. You’re worn, shirtless men carrying crates of vegetables and fish to the nearby market. Socialites collapsing at a booth in McDonalds after a night of clubbing. Hustlers going through the motions, because their hearts aren’t in it anymore. Hustlers working double time because they’re just getting started. Shacks along the Pasig overflowing with people gambling and drinking and singing and praying because even in poverty – perhaps especially in poverty – communities support one another during wakes. Families clinging together as they claim their section of sidewalk through the night. Couples holding one another as they try to stay awake waiting for buses to the provinces that may or may not come on time. Messy, beautiful lives that are just as confusing and complicated as the streets they take place on.
You’re not as tough as you look, Manila. You’re raw and ragged and more than a little bedraggled. You’re also sweet and perseverant and, in your own weird way, full of light.
So thanks, Manila, for finally opening up to me. I don’t think I’ll ever feel completely comfortable with you, but that, too, is part of your charm.
My parents visited recently. It was an amazing, refreshing trip. I was able to see Sagada and the Philippines through their eyes, they were able to step into my shoes for a bit, and we got a bit drunk on bad wine at a beautiful beach resort. A good trip.
It got me thinking a lot about relationships and family and how I’ve changed since being here. All three – relationships, family, myself – are both stronger and less tangible than I once thought. I’m still not really sure what that means.
I tried on about four separate occasions to write about their trip, about how much it meant to me and how the little, comfortable things – watching bad movies with my dad, listening attentively and then completely forgetting all the biological information my mom shares when we come across a new ecosystem – are what I missed without even realizing it. Every time I tried to write, it ended up coming out flat or off somehow. Then I came across this passage in To The End of the Land by David Grossman, and I think it captures what I ran up against perfectly:
“It’s a bit like describing how a river flows, she realizes. Like painting a whirlwind, or flames. It’s an occurrence, she thinks, happily recalling one of his old words: A family is a perpetual occurrence.”
I’m sorry, mom and dad, that I can’t seem to put together something comprehensive about your trip here. Just know, I’m glad you were able to share a little bit of the love I feel for this country and its people, and I miss our perpetual occurrence.