I arrived back to Manila in the middle of a downpour, later to discover it was the start of a slow moving tropical depression making its way across Luzon Island, which eventually whipped itself into a Category 3 typhoon. I didn’t believe I’d see my accommodation that evening as the taxi man manoeuvred his way through puddles, or rather lakes of water with rain so heavy on the windshield you could just barely make out the twinkle of a red light in front to indicate there was another car ahead. The taxi man got a very nice tip as we both exhaled a sigh of relief when he pulled up to the condo and me and my luggage arrived in one piece and more importantly, dry and unscathed.
Manila is a funny city, made up of lots of smaller cities, Quezon, Intramuros, Makati (where I live)….. It’s a modern Asian city and quite sophisticated. It has plenty of skyscrapers and decent footpaths, something not frequently found in other capital cities such as Nairobi and certainly a huge scarcity of them in Amman, where footpaths are the responsibility of the house owner.
Traffic for the most part is crippling, our national staff colleagues often leave home a 4 a.m. to get to work on time when the weather is bad, so my choice to live a five-minute walk from the office makes a lot sense. In Makati, which is the business centre, there are almost no shops at street level, just the Starbucks, McDonalds, 7/11s and a chain drugstore called Mercury (on a par with a typical US drugstore). My closest supermarket is in the basement of a high-rise condo, a 10-minute walk away and for everything else there’s the mall and I mean for everything else.
The mall is in fact about nine malls linked by a skyway (walkway) and begins just a few blocks from where I live. Makati is a fairly sophisticated city in world terms, with no motorcycle taxis to be found although they make up most of the public transport around the remainder of the Philippines.
There are subways for pedestrians to cross major intersections on the main Alaya Avenue, with stairs for the descent to the subway and escalators to take you up. However, to save electricity the escalators are switched off after eight in the evenings and at weekends. The subway itself is closed down about 10 p.m. so it can be a long walk home in an effort to find a set of traffic lights to allow you cross the road.
Brave Men Window Cleaning Skyscrapers
Walking over to the mall on the skyway takes you out of the direct fumes of the traffic for the 10-minute journey to Greenbelt. Greenbelt is linked to Landmark, which in turn is linked to Glorietta Mall. Other than Landmark, one huge fairly cheap department store with a decent supermarket in the basement, the others are marked in sections one to five, each with its own distinctive character, although not necessarily in sequence. There are sections where you can find speciality shops and almost all the hairdressers, material shops, computer shops, jewellers, electric shops are in their own little section.
Greenbelt has a beautiful garden in its centre, much of which is a water garden, populated with fish and exotic plants and comes complete with a Catholic church – not part of the water feature obviously. On one side of this green area, there there are shop fronts, while on the far side you can find fairly decent up-market restaurants with a choice of indoor or outdoor seating.
If you go to the mall on a Friday night for a bite to eat, you can have your glass of wine, dinner and have Mass thrown in as a bonus. It’s quite a unique experience. The church has a huge imposing roof but no walls, so it is not unlike the smoking areas in the pubs in Ireland, except a good deal bigger. Mass goers rather than standing at the back of the church during Mass as they would in Ireland years’ ago, prop themselves outside the shop front windows and the loudspeakers blast the hymns and prayers throughout the open area.
The fifth floor of Landmark apparently has a church (not that I have investigated) and they hang big posters around the store advertising healing priests and visiting cardinals. On weekends at the entrance to the supermarket in Landmark they have karaoke sessions and even a brass band at times. Like most Asian countries Filipinos are in love with karaoke and do not possess even the slightest modicum of a gene in their physiology to tell them they can’t actually sing. The music of the 70’s and 80’s is very popular so you get to hear many off-key Lionel Richies’ and John Denvers’ as you try and beat your way to the escalator to get to the relatively silent safety of the basement supermarket. Taxi drivers are not immune to the bit of karaoke either and I frequently take taxis where I wished I had brought my earplugs for protection. There is no sign of embarrassment as they wail along to songs on the radio.
At the centre of most of the mall sections there is an entertainment stage and some massive speakers. You never know what you’re going to find there – it could be some company doing a promotion or a few karaoke singers, but whatever it is, I never hang around to find out. Most weekends there are hundreds of chairs lined up and a full-blown concert belting out while you’re trying to buy a bottle of nail polish or a wine aerator in a shop. I find myself frequently shouting over the racket that’s going on inside the shop while the cacophony of what’s going on outside, seeps through the closed shop door.
For the most part I have stopped shopping in the mall, except for essentials at the weekend. There are a mixture of reasons; one is the obvious assault on the senses and the second is the ‘good morning Mam’ phenomena. Some friends reckon I’m a ‘good morning Mam’ magnet. I can’t seem to put my foot out on the street without complete strangers greeting me with ‘good morning Mam’. I wandered in to the hardware store one day and there seemed to be shop assistants jumping out from behind every aisle shouting ‘good morning Mam’ at me. Try stopping to look at something you may wish to buy in a store and five people stand around you. Staring. Waiting.
When you bring your goods to the sales counter one person rings in the purchase, another packs the bag, a third checked off the purchases against the receipt and yet a fourth confirms due process has taken place. It certainly seems a cultural thing, but not anything I have found it in other Southeast Asian cultures. The Mam, Sir thing (and it’s Mamsir if you happened to be in male company; ‘good morning Mamsir’), is a throwback to the American occupation during World War II. Certainly in terms of sport, every village in the Philippines has a basketball court and it’s the main sport in the country, shown on all the sports channels. The other main legacy left by the Americans is the ready availability of guns in the Philippines. Manila is too big for me to know my way around all its sub-cities, but certainly in Davao City when I would go to the Marco Polo Hotel for a Sunday swim, we went by taxi through an area where four out of five shops were gun shops. There are as many guns as people in the country.
Back in Makati and Friday night in Greenbelt is where the young and the beautiful hangout. Every restaurant and bar heaves with locals and expatriates till the small hours of the morning. Sex tourism and ‘romance’ is alive and well in Manila and the numbers of older, dare I say ugly white men, with young Filipino woman never ceases to amaze me. Around Makati young Filipino men and women are very particular about their looks although I wonder sometimes about their sense of dress. I frequently see people in the UN office, whose dress wouldn’t cost me a second thought if I met them on a beach in the same clothes. Coming out of the bathroom in work at lunchtime, it’s always difficult to find space at the washbasin as the women comb their hair, brush their teeth and fix their make up.
I have an extension on my contract until Christmas, so it’s good to know I’ll be gainfully employed until then. In less than a week after the typhoon, we had the Southwest Monsoons and it rained for four days non-stop. Buckets of the stuff fell out of the sky and 60 per cent of Manila was under water while hundreds of thousands evacuated their homes.
The stock exchange closed down for two days and Makati was like a ghost town with empty streets, as most people couldn’t make their way into the city to work. My wellington boots, carried all the way from Dublin, were eventually taken out of the wardrobe and put to use.
Manila wasn’t the only place to experience flooding and a colleague and myself went out to visit the evacuation centres in Laguna (an hour South of Manila) to see the response and take some photos for the record. The flooding is caused by water flowing in to low-lying areas, but exacerbated when people dump into the lakes, leaving no absorption and the drains are also totally blocked with rubbish.
We went out to see what was happening on the third day when heavy flooding on highways had cleared and people began moving back to their homes. In one way it was good to get out of Makati and see the real Philippines again, where people don’t live in high-rise condos and there are real shops along the streets selling bread and vegetables and repairing electrical items; where motorcycle taxis are lined up in ranks waiting for customers, the church is the centre of the village and there is community. It is easy to forget that outside the bubble of Makati/Manila real life happens.
The rains have settled down again and we get a good downpour almost every day with hair-raising claps of thunder and fantastic lightening displays. It’s all over in a couple of hours and you can almost seeing the streets visibly drying off. For the past two years, weather systems caused havoc in the Philippines. Global climate change sees typhoons in areas where there were never typhoons before and too many Filipinos die as a result, while many are left without any income as the typhoons cause damage to infrastructure and wipe out agriculture.
The effects of climate change, unfortunately, can be felt long after the typhoon has dissipated or moved off towards another area. It just seems that no matter what preparations are put in place, it’s never quite enough. Perhaps government investment in an education campaign on dumping would help reduce the damage and more attention to deforestation wouldn’t go astray either…. but that’s another episode.
Until the next time