First Impressions of Manila

I’ve been in the Philippines for about two weeks now and have had a few people ask what I think of it. I hadn’t intended to write much about my experiences, except as they relate to the pen community, but it’s going to be easier to have a public post than to write it all out in private emails. There will also be some followup to this post, looking at the local retail scene and my first pen meet-up, and maybe a little more about the Philippines. I’ll make sure to note in the intro when, like today’s post, there’s no FP content.

Sharing impressions of any place is like walking a tightrope. You want to honestly share your experiences but you don’t want to offend the locals. Writing and re-writing this post has made it obvious that managing the balance isn’t easy. Hopefully the Filipinos reading this will feel it’s a fair reflection of their city. 

The trip itself started badly. I’d barely slept in the hotel before arriving at Sydney Airport at 3.30am, and faced a check-in queue of several hundred people with a single counter. It took two hours, and gave me some time to observe the other travellers. Most looked like Filipinos travelling home for Christmas but a few stood out. Middle-aged white guys, travelling alone. It was hard not to make assumptions about their intentions: for all I knew, they may have been legitimate tourists looking to travel somewhere exotic and exciting. But it was hard to shake the assumption, and that impression coloured my expectations of what was to come. 

The flight itself (with Philippine Airlines) was fairly unremarkable, neither good nor bad, but I didn’t get much sleep on the flight and was exhausted by the time we landed. Once we were inside the terminal, my concerns were raised. I knew that we were entering a developing country, but one which had reached the status of lower-middle income (a per capita income higher than India, for instance) and I guess I expected more from the airport. It had been poorly maintained, and the staff were apathetic. Several slept at their posts. Those manning the immigration counters were weirdly inconsistent. Dozens of guards and janitors loitered around, killing time rather than doing anything. The uni had organised a transfer to our hotel, and we found the transfer/rentals office full of sleeping drivers and admin people. There were more than a dozen kiosks but no computers. I was starting to wonder if the Philippines was actually a lot poorer than imagined. 

Once the transfers administrator found a driver who was awake and in possession of a functioning vehicle, we were away. The traffic was pretty much as you’d expect in a developing country: road rules are more a statement of ideals than any actual guide for drivers. Traffic lights, pedestrian crossings, lane markings were all ignored. Horns were an effective substitute for blinkers. As a passenger, this kind of thing is fun (and only a little stressful). Lisa pointed out that the traffic was much better here than in Egypt or Nepal: despite all of the chaos, we’ve yet to witness a single accident. 

But the driver took some shortcuts through the backroads, areas which I could only really describe as slum-like. Not having seen actual poverty for myself — nothing beyond scenes on television or in books — it was startling, and I’ve struggled to articulate what I saw. In the foreground were lots of people milling about decrepit, ramshackle buildings and lean-tos, and dozens of kiosks bearing junk. In the background, and really not that far away, were tall, gleaming skyscrapers. One particular moment stuck with me: we glimpsed the inlet of an estuary (Estero de Tripa de Gallina -- the Chicken Guts estuary) that was chock full of garbage and debris. It was dense enough to support two diggers, and I could see people walking on it as well. Our driver said the estuary was supposed to channel stormwater out to sea, but it was so clogged with debris that the water just built up instead.  The nearby slum area would flood with even a light downpour; in thunderstorms, kiosks and makeshift homes were swept away. Not infrequently, people in this area would be swept away too. Apparently, the government had recently cleared people from living on the estuary and would ‘eventually’ clear the debris as well.

That stayed with me until we arrived at our hotel and the car stopped at a security checkpoint. One guard used a mirror to search beneath the car, while another opened the boot and had a dog sniff our bags. I noticed that both were armed: one had a handgun, the other had a shotgun. Excluding cops and television shows, it would have been at least a decade since I last saw a firearm. And while the checkpoint was obviously there to guarantee the safety of guests and make us feel reassured, it made me wonder about the threat level which made it necessary. 

As an Australian government employee travelling on a government program, DFAT had briefed Lisa about the general dangers we would be facing: they warned us not to travel to the country’s south, where rebels might want to kidnap or kill us. They warned about storms and typhoons, and the accompanying flash flooding. They warned about disease and the precautions we should take. But except for the water, some food, and some street crime, the cities seemed to be a safe place. The security checkpoints — and the abundance of guards, as we’d later see — contributed to my sense of concern. 

After checking in, we reached our room and I collapsed on the bed. It was large, soft, and comfortable: an amazing feeling. Sitting on the bedside table was a bottle of water, beside a note saying more would be provided each day. Like the security checkpoint, it was thoughtful of the hotel, but reminded me that I couldn’t use a tap for the next 10 weeks. And I remember, quite vividly, the feeling of being overwhelmed by everything. 

That feeling grew as we headed out to find some basics: food, water, local SIM cards. We went to a local shopping centre and found Filipinos could not understood our accent and we could not understand theirs. Desperate for something familiar, we found our way to McDonalds and were bewildered by the menu. It’s striking how much the Australian McDonalds has changed in recent years, to the point where things like a Big Mac are still on the menu — but more out of nostalgia, I think, than because anyone still buys them. Here, the relics were the only familiar items on the menu and competed for space with fried chicken, rice, and spaghetti. I ate my first Big Mac since high school. 

The heat and humidity helped to contribute to my feelings of unease. The temperatures were often hotter at home but the humidity was much thicker here; it was impossible to walk more than a few blocks without becoming sweaty and a little nauseous. The mass of people was also a surprise: even compared with Sydney CBD (downtown), Manila is an incredibly dense city, averaging more than 60,000 people per square kilometre. Sydney is perhaps a tenth of that, and home (Newcastle) is maybe a hundredth. Being in a shopping area right before Christmas, that density was multiplied. 

By the end of the second or third day, I was seriously wondering if I had made a mistake. Not in coming to Manila necessarily, but in choosing to stay for as long as I had. Ten weeks is a long time, a really long time, especially in a place that feels so overwhelmingly unfamiliar. There was almost nothing in those first few days that felt familiar or comfortable. I didn’t even feel like myself. Generally, I’m quite good at sorting things out: if something needs to be done, it doesn’t take long to put together a plan, get to work, and get it done. It’s something which has come to constitute part of my identity, how I see myself and (hopefully) how others see me too. Yet I was struggling to do that here, and that feeling of being overwhelmed was growing stronger with each hour. 

Keeping a journal helped me to articulate and understand my feelings, and convinced me that I need to get some small wins under my belt. I made a list and we kept setting out until we started making progress. Soon enough, we had SIM cards and semi-reliable internet. We had made friends with the manager of the hotel restaurant and the security guard outside the hotel. We got ourselves on Uber (thanks Butch!). We went out, again and again, until we felt familiar in the local area. We began to feel comfortable in our environment. We recognised that we were in a relatively safe part of town, and that the restaurants around us weren’t going to make us sick. We found a 7/11 literally in the same building as the hotel, where we were able to get drinks, ice creams, and even cheap bottles of Hennessy and Johnny Walker Black (not my preferred scotch but beggars can’t be choosers!). 

Most valuably, we met with an old friend of mine. We had studied Finance together as postgraduates before Luzy moved back to the Philippines. She took us out for lunch, introduced us to things like adobo, garlic rice, and the Filipino style of pork belly. We talked for hours about Manila and the Philippines, and helped us to get our bearings. Later, we ate some bibingka (delicious!) and puto bumbong (not so delicious). I sipped, suspiciously, at halo-halo, then consumed half a glass in a matter of seconds. It’s good stuff. 

By this point, my feelings had really changed: things were starting to become familiar, I was starting to get comfortable, and felt like myself again. The feeling of being overwhelmed was fading fast. Lisa, fast becoming a veteran of travel to developing countries, said it was just culture shock and she was probably right. I started to relax, and as I did, I started to enjoy Manila. 

The park across the road from the hotel (the Ayala Triangle Park) featured a light show with Christmas music each evening, and we regularly went over to watch alongside a few hundred locals and their children. It was a really charming sight, and I found myself starting to feel more comfortable there than I would in Sydney. The police and guards were plentiful, and there was no trouble at all. Nobody was drunk, nobody was stoned, nobody was belligerent. It was just a sea of polite, friendly people, enjoying the experience together. 

And that’s not just something we’ve experienced at the park. Everywhere we’ve gone, the Filipinos have been extraordinarily welcoming and hospitable. Australians are often described as being quite a friendly people, and I think this means it’s very easy to have a chat with a random Aussie. They’ll be open for a chat and a laugh, or to give you directions, that sort of thing. The Filipinos are friendly in a different way. They’ll actually go out of their way to be helpful — they won’t just provide directions, they’ll offer to drive you somewhere. It’s an interesting difference. 

So two weeks after arriving, we have food, we have friends, and we have an apartment (in Legaspi village, just south of the financial district). It’s a nice, safe, walkable area that reminds us of Sydney. There are convenience stores, coffee shops, bakeries, and take-out restaurants all over the place. It’s close to the uni (DLSU), close to the shops, even close to a Montblanc boutique that’s being built (in Greenbelt). We still have things to organise, like broadband and a list of meals we can cook on the limited equipment here, but it already feels familiar. It feels like home. And for me, that’s the absolute best thing I can say about a place that’s so far from home.