Vignettes of the Streets of Manila

T he miasma of urine, diesel and body odors reeked in the dense and stale early morning air along Taft Avenue in Pasay City. A man lay near a fresh pink puddle of vomit on what was left of the crumbled sidewalk as people crowded the markets, struggling to go about their everyday lives.

Meanwhile, a man held a woman tightly while snuggling under a frayed blanket, sleeping against a shack of a building. Their two young daughters lay asleep nearby on a sidewalk, also huddled together under a single drab blanket.

I walked along the busy street underneath the light rail viaduct as I made my way from Baclaran towards Pedro Gil, hoping that the conditions would improve as I proceeded northward — but it was kilometer after kilometer of poverty, deteriorating infrastructure, and ordinary people working hard just trying to get by.

It is impossible to walk on the sidewalk for one complete block along Taft Avenue, named for the former president of the United States. If there actually was a sidewalk on which to walk, it was blocked by motor vehicles; speckled with feces; pocked with holes and rocks; overrun with some indistinguishable fluid; or had an impromptu stand where the proprietor sold his or her wares, trying to earn a Philippine peso.

The rumbling of engines and the horns of cars, trucks, buses and motorcycles echoed with the crowing of roosters amidst the cacophony along the corridor of Taft Avenue in an endless affront of noise, as stray dogs and cats wandered confused and aimlessly about the quasi-organized pandemonium. The light rail train rumbled above, unaware of the pockets of desperation which lingered below its tracks.

The aroma of food — cooked, rotting, fresh, raw — competed with the plethora of pungent odors which assaulted my olfactory sense with every whiff, with no escape…

…and despite men laying in the streets face down with an outstretched arm — cup in hand, presumably for spare coins — life goes on.

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I was told by a number of people that it would be dangerous to walk in the dark from the airport to Baclaran; that the walk would be too far; and that I should wait until after the light of dawn if I were to do so. Some suggested I take a yellow taxi and not a white taxi when I passed through customs.

My flight arrived at that airport at approximately 3:30 in the morning. Before I knew it, I was through the entire process from deplaning to finding myself at the curb of Terminal 1 — one of the worst airport terminals I have ever seen. The sun had not awakened yet; and there were several people milling about: airport security guards, maintenance workers cleaning for the start of the day, taxi drivers hoping for a fare, a lone patron of a sole currency exchange booth…

…and yet, seats were at a premium, as there were so few of them.

“Are you looking for a taxi?” asked one of the airport security guards.

“No…I am just looking for a place to sit.” Where was I to go at before 4:00 in the morning? What kind of ridiculous hour was this for an airline to dump off its passengers?

The airport security guard walked me over to the only area of the arrivals area of Terminal 1 with a place to sit and motioned one of the people to move over so that I may squeeze in. “Thank you”, I replied as I sat down to contemplate my next move.

The older gentleman next to me — Filipino in ethnicity, I presumed — asked with an accent where I was from.

“The United States”, I replied.

“No, where? I am from Houston.”

“The Atlanta area.”

“I am here to see my family. I have not been here in 17 years. Things have changed a lot.”

“You also arrived less than an hour ago?”

“No. My flight arrived at 1:00 in the morning. I am trying to get to my hotel near Terminal 3; but the airport bus won’t operate until about 4:30.”

He then told me about how he was the victim of a pickpocket five years earlier — in Athens, if I remember correctly. He lost his wallet, which contained credit cards, greater than $700.00 in cash, and other items.

I decided to travel on the airport bus to Terminal 2 with him and others. Terminal 1 was too depressing for me — especially at that hour of the morning; and I had an entire day in Manila ahead of me…

…but I could not just step onto the bus. I had to sign a form with flight information to qualify as a passenger for the free ride.

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Some time after I arrived at Terminal 2 — which was teeming with activity and far nicer than Terminal 1, which was not difficult to accomplish — I asked a group of three airport police officers which was the best way out of the airport.

“Where do you want to go?”, asked one of them.

“I do not know. I guess towards Roxas Boulevard.”

He looked puzzled. “Rocks what?”

“You know — the street that runs along the bay.”

“Ahhhh….Rohas Boulevard. Yes.”

Well, I never heard the pronunciation of that name. With the Spanish language influence clearly prevalent in the Philippines, I should have known better. I have heard Mexico pronounced as Me-hee-co; so I suppose it stands to reason that Roxas is pronounced RO-hass.

“Where on Roxas Boulevard do you want to go?” asked the airport police officer. “A hotel?”

“Well, I have no hotel. You see, I did have a hotel for last night, but the airline cancelled my flight — so I am only here for the day. My flight out is tonight — well, technically extremely early tomorrow morning — so booking a hotel made no sense. I just want to walk around and see Manila.”

The airport police officer discouraged me from simply walking out of the airport, citing potentially dangerous conditions — which echoed the advice imparted to me by another person before I left the United States: “People who work graveyard at the airport have been robbed early morning and late night going to work or leaving work, and you would be more targeted as a tourist” if I were to have walked to Baclaran from the airport.

What happened next was something I never experienced before.

“Have you ever taken a Jeepney?”, he asked.

This is a Jeepney. Photograph ©2014 by Brian Cohen.

This is a Jeepney. Photograph ©2014 by Brian Cohen.

“No”, thinking that I remembered reading somewhere not to take one, as I had been warned of the very skilled teams of rogues on the Jeepneys who regularly pickpocket unsuspecting victims.

Note the open areas of the rear ends of the Jeepneys, through which you will see passengers often crammed inside. Photograph ©2014 by Brian Cohen.

Note the open areas of the rear ends of the Jeepneys, through which you will see passengers often crammed inside. Photograph ©2014 by Brian Cohen.

“Here.” He hands me a note worth 20 Philippine pesos and leads me out of the terminal area and towards a street; flags down a multi-colored jalopy which resembles a Jeep on steroids, tells the driver to take me to Baclaran, and instructs me to get on by climbing in through the open area of the back. Knowing that the exchange rate at that time was approximately 44 Philippine pesos for every United States dollar, I am wondering how this Jeepney was going to take me to Baclaran, where the first stop of the light rail line is located…

Photograph ©2014 by Brian Cohen.

The driver of this Jeepney wends his way through traffic to get me to within the vicinity of the Baclaran station of the light rail train line. Photograph ©2014 by Brian Cohen.

Photograph ©2014 by Brian Cohen.

This is the passenger compartment of the Jeepney. The back of the vehicle is wide open with no door, as passengers simply hop on and hop off. There is no insulation from traffic noise and fumes. Do not expect to be offered a pre-flight beverage or meal service here. Photograph ©2014 by Brian Cohen.

…not to mention that once I stepped into this amalgamation of rusted metal sloppily welded and painted over numerous times, I wondered how it even ran at all. I sat on the long bench seat with multiple layers of tape which barely kept it together in one piece.

Jeepneys can tend to flood the streets of Manila, as their fares tend to be very inexpensive. Photograph ©2014 by Brian Cohen.

Jeepneys can tend to flood the streets of Manila, as their fares tend to be very inexpensive. The sidewalk is virtually impassable in this photograph due to vendors who set up shop to sell their wares. Photograph ©2014 by Brian Cohen.

The ride — on which I was alone for the most part, save for a few men who boarded during the trip — cost me 8.50 Philippine pesos, or approximately 19 cents. The driver instructed me to get off of the Jeepney, walk to the corner and turn right down the crowded street…

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…and this is how I wound up walking down Taft Avenue that sultry early morning, witnessing a slice of everyday life in this part of the Manila metropolitan area.

Photograph ©2014 by Brian Cohen.

Taft Avenue is located directly underneath the overpass, which carries the light rail train. People often walk in the street, as the sidewalks are usually impassable. Photograph ©2014 by Brian Cohen.

The funny thing is that not one person asked me for a peso. Not one person looked at me like I was out of place — which was obvious that I indeed was out of place. For some reason, my New York intuition did not sound off, telling me that I was in any sort of danger. This was just everyday life for them; and I just happened to walk through it that morning. For a very brief moment, I was innocuously a part of it.

As I walked, I thought about frequent travel loyalty program miles and points. I thought about airport and hotel lounges. I thought about upgrades and elite level status…

…and I was reminded that what was really important in life was to have food, clothing, shelter, health and the support of loved ones. There were thousands of stories waiting to be told along Taft Avenue that morning. I could not tell you how many people were homeless; whether their situations were temporary or permanent; and what types of help or assistance they are receiving, if any. I cannot tell you if they have something to which to look forward in their futures. I can only tell you what I saw.

Epifanio de los Santos Avenue — a major roadway better known as the EDSA — looking towards the west as seen from Taft Avenue. Photograph ©2014 by Brian Cohen.

Epifanio de los Santos Avenue — a major roadway better known as the EDSA — looking towards the west as seen from Taft Avenue. Photograph ©2014 by Brian Cohen.

The neighborhood did marginally improve as I ventured north along Taft Avenue — past Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, a major roadway better known as the EDSA; past the Libertad light rail train station; past Gil Puyat Avenue; past Quirino Avenue; past the Philippine Women’s University where young women were arriving to attend classes that morning.

The smoke and fumes from vehicles can be so bad that this police officer — who was directing traffic — has his moth and nose covered. Photograph ©2014 by Brian Cohen.

The smoke and fumes from vehicles can be so bad that this police officer — who was directing traffic — has his mouth and nose covered. Photograph ©2014 by Brian Cohen.

I finally reached Pedro Gil and turned left towards the Hyatt Regency Hotel & Casino property. While not as bad as along Taft Avenue, there were still broken sidewalks, people huddled in the street trying to catch a wink of sleep, traffic choking the air with diesel and gasoline fumes, and merchants selling their wares. I wanted to see where I was originally supposed to have stayed. There was a liftgate bar with a security guard at each end of the circular driveway to the hotel property. I walked up to the glass doors to the lobby of the hotel, where a doorman opened one of the doors and greeted me. “Good morning, sir”, he said…

…and there I was, in a spacious air conditioned lobby, spotless and shiny, with employees dressed almost formally. One of them even offered me a bottle of cold water despite my not being a guest there. I told her afterwards that I was supposed to have been a guest there the night before but that my flight had canceled. They treated me well and even offered suggestions on where to exchange currency as well as what to see in Manila. I graciously thanked them and went to the bank they recommended across the street, where a security guard held what looked like a shotgun; and the sign which greeted customers after a cursory bag check warned not to bring firearms into the bank. I had to sign in on a form to enter the bank.

The significant dichotomy between supposed “classes” of people astounded me in Manila. It was not so difficult to believe that you could be surrounded by three or four thugs who would think nothing of robbing you of what you have. I have been told that people have been killed in front of that Hyatt hotel property.

A couple sits along Roxas Boulevard. Photograph ©2014 by Brian Cohen.

A couple sits along Roxas Boulevard. Photograph ©2014 by Brian Cohen.

I know, I know — it should not astound me. The dichotomy exists all over the world. I have seen it in other cities on this unintentional trip around the world — whether it was in Budapest, Dublin or Madrid — as well as in other cities around the world throughout my life, including New York…

…and I am not exactly a billionaire by any means; but I believe that sometimes we all need a hard dose of exposure to the reality of others to be reminded of what goes on in the world and to keep things in perspective — and that there are people who have more substantial things to think about other than missing an upgrade or not being allowed into an airport lounge…

All photographs ©2014 by Brian Cohen.

13 thoughts on “Vignettes of the Streets of Manila”

  1. Wayne says:

    This is what good writing is all about.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      Thank you so much, Wayne. I truly appreciate your comment!

  2. Sean says:

    So, you have decent writing ability. But some things that I find truly annoying about your blog are the pictures. Nobody cares that they are “Copyright by Brian Cohen.” First, are your pictures even filed for copyright protection with the U.S. Copyright Office? Secondly, your pictures are not that important that they need “protected”!

    Lastly, I really hate seeing your face every time I click on a post. Really.

    Thanks for listening

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      My photographs are not filed for copyright protection with the Copyright Office of the United States — nor is that process required for them to be protected:

      http://copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-general.html#mywork

      Thank you for taking the time to post your thoughts, Sean.

  3. BII says:

    I agree ,well written .

    More important , most Americans when they travel never see the REAL country or how the masses live — just as NYC is not America same for al the l other major cities in this world.
    I am 75 years old and made my first trip to Asia in 1968 and been to Asia 100 times –saw plenty of poverty -I think Bangladesh was the poorest , plenty of very aggressive beggars as soon as you exited the airport — even the poorest American has it better than most -plus they have the hope they or the next generation will move up–most in Asia have no real chance to improve life

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts, BII.

      It is difficult to have an opinion about anyplace in this world when one is not exposed to the real area.

      When I took that walk down Taft Avenue, I will admit that I was out of my comfort zone — but I also felt like I was getting the true taste of that part of the Manila area. With exceptions, I generally do not like what are known as “tourist” areas. This was the real deal, it seemed to me.

      It made me wonder what could be done to help eradicate such poverty — or, at least, mitigate it as much as possible. No one should have to live on the street and wonder where their next meal is coming from…

  4. Joey says:

    Part of my childhood was spent visiting Manila and I remember NAIA Terminal 1 very well. In fact, I usually visit Manila every other year and still feel nostalgic whenever I arrive in NAIA Terminal 1 since it looks pretty much the same way it did back in the 1980s! Terminals 2 & 3 are definitely newer yet my favorite is still Terminal 1 for its distinct charm. 😉
    It’s funny but I’ve actually never been in a jeepney. From what I recall of my childhood, we always were transported in a car (sometimes with a driver or sometimes my dad drove.)
    BTW, the photo you took with the police officer also shows the iconic Manila Hotel. It’s not part of any chain but I recall loving and appreciating its subtle Filipinana luxury. I would have gone there to eat the breakfast buffet.
    Roxas Blvd used to be called Dewey Blvd and Taft was indeed a president of the USA, but in the Philippines, he was the first US Governor-General.
    Were you able to go to the historic Intramuros district? Sadly it was destroyed by the Japanese back in WWII, but if you’ve been to Cartagena, I’d imagine Intramuros would have looked like what Cartagena’s revived historic district looks today.
    I’ve never been to the Hyatt Regency Manila, but recall going to the Hyatt Baguio hotel back in the day. It was made famous due to the earthquake in the area back years ago. Anyway, the US embassy was within walking distance to your hotel so if you were really homesick I say go there? 😉

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      I did go to the Intramuros district, Joey. I visited the church and walked along the fortifying wall.

      That will be in a future article — complete with photographs, of course.

      I probably should have asked you for advice on Manila; but in some ways, travel without plans — or, at least, when plans change unexpectedly — can offer some potential adventure to a trip.

      Thank you as always for commenting, Joey. I appreciate it and always enjoy reading your thoughts…

    2. Juan M. Gacad, Jr. says:

      The City of Manila, including Intramuros, was destroyed during the battle to liberate Manila in WWII. In the words of Gen. Mac Arthur, Manila was the most devastated city on earth second only to Warsaw. Although the retreating Japanese soldiers committed countless atrocities against civilians and residents of the city, the widespread destruction of Manila, to include Intramuros, was caused largely by the incessant fire and carpet bombing, mortar and artillery shelling of the American forces to dislodge the retreating Japanese soldiers. No offense meant, but just to correct an important misimpression in the history of Manila.

  5. Nate Diggity says:

    I’ve beento Manila 3 times, about a week each time. My first trip was around that same area it looks like at the Shanghai-La. I wouldn’t call it a tourist area but it felt completely safe and in a weird way Americanized. I wasn’t totally out of my element as I understand a little Tagalog. I never felt threatened or like I was going to get robbed. Everyone there is so friendly, to Americans and to each other. As you said, putting things into perspective you realize the have twice as less than a homeless person in the usa but they all treated each other kindly, didn’t appear to look for handouts. It’s a very interesting place, very very poor, over populated but with huge buildings I the center. If not for the population, some of the worst traffic in e world and extreme heat, I would go back. If you ever go back take a drive towards he country area away from the big hotels. It’s beautiful. Problem is easily 1.5-2hr drive in that traffic. We had a personal driver who ran several lights and got pulled over. My mom bribed him with $20 USD and we nearly got an escort to the wedding we were late for. The driver was very grateful. Apparently having a license is a big deal there. There is a lot of beauty within Manila once you can get passed the population, heat and such. I had some locals from the hotel take me out to play basketball one day nearby. Great times. They introduced me to some others who took me out to the bars. I felt completely safe alone. No clue where I was either. Nice article nonetheless.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      I believe you summed it up nicely, Nate Diggity.

      This was my first visit to the Philippines; and for some reason I had always imagined it to be beautiful outside of Manila…

      …but alas, I did not have the time to venture out of Manila due to the unexpected change in my itinerary resulting from a canceled flight, when I was originally supposed to be there for two days.

      I have learned over the years to never judge an entire country — or even an entire city — by a relatively cursory visit. Despite all of the warnings which have been given to me prior to my visit, I had not felt unsafe being alone in Manila.

      As with any large city, it is important to take the usual proper precautions to prevent from being a victim of a crime…

      …and you are correct about there being a lot of beauty in Manila. In fact, the one thing I kept thinking to myself while I was there was that Manila has so much potential — and that they should take advantage of that potential.

      I will bet that that basketball game was a lot of fun. I would have done the same had I been offered the opportunity even though I play the game poorly…

  6. Willy says:

    Ah, the PI! Got to love it really. I visited many times and walked those same streets you visited. I don’t think I agree with the old man in the terminal, looks and sounds like it’s pretty much the same as ever. Which is good, and bad.

    At least you got a ride in a jeepney, you should thank the cop for easing you into that. What a truly iconic philippino experience. Useful too. Sure it’s a bit intimidating if you don’t know it, but fun. My squadron actually owned a jeepney that we drove around base, what a hoot!

    I always had fun in Manila. The food is fantastic! The entertainment is really the best in the world. The singers are amazing; any type of music is avaailable live any night of the week. My favorite bar was the Hobbit House, quite un-PC but lots of fun.

    We used to stay mostly at the Sheraton in the central city area, they had a very nice pool area and a Jolibee just next door 🙂 No need to stay out in Makati.

    Sure, there is the dichotomy between rich and poor there, quite noticable. But I think that’s just the nature of the PI and its people. They don’t hold anything back, nothing is hidden. So it’s good and bad, you see the warts and all but they will welcome you as if you were family without question. Thus your experiences with the cop and on the street. Such a precious commodity there and quite unlike so many other places in the world. Cherish your visit for that.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      What an awesome perspective you have given on Manila, Willy!

      Yes, I must admit that at first, I was wary about that Jeepney ride; but then I realized that it was the beginning of being enveloped in part of the Filipino experience of Manila.

      If I saw him again, I would thank that airport police officer profusely for doing me what I now realize was a huge favor and giving me an experience I will always remember…

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