We hopped off the bus in Manila and immediately the acrid smell of human urine hit and stung our nostrils. It reminded me of the men's room at the Oakland Coliseum at the end of a sold out Raider's game, and for a moment I got nostalgic...it faded quickly. The thing about the Coliseum is that as soon as you leave the premises the stench fades...I wish I could say the same about Manila, but I can't. It seemed like that all too familiar smell just followed us around and was close at hand where ever we found ourselves.
We found sanctity from the odor in only a few places which I shall name here: 1) the air-conditioned cab we took to our hotel (but not the one we took to the airport 3 days later)
2) the hotel (although not in the public bathroom in the lobby)
3) the Shwarma Snack Center (more about this glorious establishment in a minute)
4) the Robinson's Place mall.
Our time in Manila could be summed up succinctly by saying that we spent 80% of our time in these four locations, and the other 20% wishing we were in one of these four locations.
The first 2 are self-explanatory and uneventful, except to note that we had a room that faced the main street meaning we were subjected constantly to the other thing (aside from it's pungent aroma) that I shall always associate the city with; the loudest traffic you'll ever hear. Jeepneys run 24 hours a day and as much as it is an apparent requirement that they be gaudily decorated and have extremely loud horns, it seems they are also required to operate with a dysfunctional muffler, or even no muffler at all. Between their noise and the thick, black or blue exhaust that they spew incessantly they really are charming inventions. After 3+ months in Asia we're becoming numb to the obnoxious beep-beep of motorbikes horns, but I'm able to report that Manila motorbike drivers also use their horn as an alternative to their brakes with alarming regularity; I guess replacing brake pads is a more costly repair then a burned out horn fuse.
The Shwarma Snack Center was number 3 on the above list, but that's only because that list is in chronological order from our arrival in Manila. If we were to rank them in order of importance to us or overall awesomeness it would be número UNO and by a long shot. In case you haven't read all our posts from Philippines, I have to catch you up on something: we've been here for 3 weeks during which time we've fought and defeated our first significant stomach ailment, found out that Iceburg lettuce and Cucumber IS the extent of available green vegetables, and have struggled mightily to feed my lovely, but vegetarian-afflicted, girlfriend who between the 3 things I've just noted had been withering away in front of my eyes. So, when we read about this spot in Lonely Planet Gina's eyes lit up. As it happens our hotel was only 3 urine scented blocks away, which made it mighty convenient as we ate dinner there all 3 nights we were in town.
It's not much to look at, but Shwarma Snack Center (SSC, henceforth) puts out a mean Mediterranean feed. In the best of times this vegetarian friendly cuisine ranks high on G and my list of favorites, but in G's emaciated state the big plates of hummus, falafel, cucumber salad, tahini, pickled vegetables, olives and fresh pita bread was positively a gift from Heaven. On a much less important aside, I found their non-vegetarian kebabs and skewers to be equally delicious. Oh, and its cheap too. We ate like kings for under $10/meal. Bless that place; it'd almost be worth going back to Manila just for a visit. (Almost!)
The Mall! Filipinos take their malls seriously; the Mall of Asia here in Manila boasts to being the 3rd largest in the WORLD. We found a smaller (but by no means small) version of that mall in our neighborhood, and only another 3 pungent blocks walk away from the SSC. I don't really know how else to say it, but, we spent quite a bit of time there. We saw 2 movies (Sherlock Holmes 2 and Mission Impossible 4), enjoyed some happy hour beers with a falling down drunk (hammered!!!) German fugitive-come-government consultant, did plenty of people watching and even pioneered what we consider to be a new sport/exercise sure to be the newest craze in fitness; Mall Walking.
So, we've been traveling for roughly 8 months now and the one constant regardless of continent, country or city is that we walk, A LOT. Around town, sightseeing, to kill time, for exercise...we walk. Well, we couldn't find anywhere around town really worth walking (especially after dark) so one evening after a huge meal at SSC we found ourselves really wanting a nice post dinner stroll and so turned to the safest and best smelling (except for the bathrooms) place we knew; the Mall. I mention "safe" above and I'll qualify that a little by saying that there are some parts of town you shouldn't walk at night (same as any big city in the world), but our neighborhood wasn't worrisome in that regard. What we were more concerned about were the obstacle laiden, poorly lit, narrow, heavily trafficked, non sidewalked streets that encompassed our neighborhood. Yeah, it's the type of place you could easily fall into an unmarked hole in the sidewalk or slice your leg open on a rusty piece of metal that is sticking out the ground or trip on a gutter that protrudes from the street awkwardly and dangerously and is covered in garbage and (literally) rats the size of small house cats. So, like I said, the mall seemed a good place to walk. So we did...we started on the ground floor and walked the entire circumference of that floor. The loop took 11 minutes and that was at a good clip. Escalator to the 2nd floor; same drill...around we walked. And so on, up to the 5th (and final floor). On the way down we walked the corridors that cut across each floor-circuit and by the time we'd reached the ground floor again we'd walked every meter of Robinson's Place mall. It took just over 50 minutes and I'd estimate we covered a good 3-4 miles including a few streches of moderate incline the architects had put in seemingly just for us.
In the beginning of this rant I mentioned that we spent 80% of our time in the above 4 locations, for the remaining 20% of the time we did our best (and with as much optimism as we could muster) to see the rest of what Manila had to offer. We walked to Rizal Park, the only significant green space in the city where it promptly started to rain. We waited it out at first huddled under the umbrella of a street vendor where we bought and consumed an RC Cola (how's that for a blast from the past) while chatting awkwardly with a street kid who'd approached us (heart-breaking; orphaned with a mouth full of entirely rotted teeth). Later we walked towards the museum (it was closed) and when the rain started again sought shelter on the covered front stoop.
Next we walked into Intramuros which is the oldest and most charming area of town. It dates back from when the Spanish settled the islands centuries ago and a bit of the original European styled architecture remains. It took a beating in WWII when US and Japanese bombs killed over 100,000 civilians and destroyed most of the original buildings. It's been re-built now and we saw a nice looking cathedral and a noteworthy memorial to those who died there in WWII. There are some nice arts and craft stores and a few little plazas with some trees and a couple benches. You can climb on the walls that perimeter the "city" and from up there we had good views of Intramuros, downtown Manila's skyline and the VERY nice looking golf course that runs just on the outside of the wall. It's certainly the most "cute" area we've seen in Manila.
And then we saw it, right there in broad daylight and under the watchful eye of locals, tourists and even the sawed-off-shotgun armed Manila police: the culprit and reason the city smells like a urinal- one guy after the other relieving himself, not into a bush or on a patch of grass, mind you, but on the buildings, sidewalks, hell, right into the middle of the street. Incredible!
And that sort of sums up the Philippines; stark contrasts of beauty and downright disgustingness. In our time bouncing around we've been to perhaps the most beautiful place I've ever seen at El Nido and met some of the genuinely nicest and most generous and helpful people you could ever hope to meet. We've also seen some not so beautiful things and met some less-then-savory characters. One constant is that it's been interesting; down right puzzling at times, maddeningly frustrating at others and almost always head scratchingly humorous.
I'll close with one final anecdote from the Philippines that illustrates the last form of "interesting" I describe above. It occurred at 11pm in the Manila airport as we attempted to spend our final Pesos before boarding our flight out to Vietnam. We saw an ice cream stand just getting ready to close up for the night and we went over to buy a cone. We selected mint chip (for me) and Cookies 'n' Creme (for G). As the guy started to scoop he grabbed for a cup and we asked instead for a waffle cone.
"Oh....... no. Only one flavor in a cone," he replied.
We offered to pay extra for the cone. Nope. We offered to buy the cone separately. Nope.
"No, sorry." (He didn't seem sorry)
We asked him what the difference was between 2 scoops of one flavor in the cone (which he was happy to do) and 1 scoop each of 2 flavors.
"Oh, those are the rules, sir-madam," he smiled.
We attempted sarcasm: "Will the world explode if 2 flavors are placed in one waffle cone?" Gina asked.
On this went, until finally I handed Gina the rest of the money and walked away chuckling as she continued attempting to reason with the guy.
Finally, Gina walked over and sat down next to me at the gate; in her hands a CUP with a scoop each of Mint Chip and Cookies 'n' Creme. We exchanged looks and then chuckled as we ate the ice cream...
Oh Philippines, you are one hell of a place!