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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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…
…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.
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…
…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.
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.
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.
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.
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.