Manila, the Philippines
May 3, 2010
There was no better way to know a city than by walking its streets. Though I had walked and known other cities, I was not inclined to accord the same intimacy to Manila, the city I worked in but would rather not walk in. There was always something that kept me off its streets: the mundane grind of real life perhaps, or the grime, crime, and grinding poverty. However, one sun-baked afternoon, cabin fever lured my friend and me outdoors to pound the city’s pavement.
The first thing that caught my eye was a calesa parked ON the sidewalk. Such was the opening salvo – the annoying Filipino habit of using the sidewalk other than what it was made for. It was not unusual to find people sprawled on it, snoozing comfortably. One man I saw was napping al fresco on an enviable hammock too! With our narrow sidewalks hijacked by sleeping people and vendors, pedestrians would take to the streets instead.
The sidewalk also doubled as parking space for cars and even a calesa, a two-wheeled carriage. I saw one which had been divorced by its horse. Forlorn and forgotten, its frame had obviously seen better days – now its colorful past had started to flake off. The abandoned calesa and the dead-to-the-world man on the busy sidewalk foreshadowed scenes I would see on this sweat-drenched promenade under the relentless El Niño sun.
Homelessness, almost immediately, made its in-ya-face presence – but with a welcoming smile. I met a kid on Padre Faura Street, just outside Paco Park, who asked me a rather odd favor: to have his photo taken. I obliged and showed him the shots. He grinned from ear to ear, seemingly satisfied with the results. Or maybe he just wanted to look at himself. A few steps down the road I met an old woman, presumably the boy’s grandmother, who was cradling and feeding two little kittens. They were clearly her pride and joy. A homeless woman giving a home to these kittens was a testament of humanity in the face of next-to-nothingness.
They carried on our tete-a-tete with such unexpectedly disarming civility. Never did they ask for money. I felt a sting of shame for initially having my guard up (though rightly so in this area) when they simply saw me as another human being, not a meal ticket. A little time and some human interaction were worth more than any coins I could spare them.
With the national elections approaching, the entire city was festooned with all kinds of ugliness: posters, tarps, and banderitas of politicians running for office – a good number of them movie stars. In this country, there was a thin line between politics and showbiz.
Case in point: Isko Moreno, a former actor with a megawatt smile was running for a second term as vice mayor of the city. Like that boy I met, he was born in abject poverty and pushed carts for a living. Good looks propelled him to teen stardom, but before his matinee idol shelf life expired, he reinvented himself as a public servant. From the city’s filthy streets to the city’s august halls – that was a fail-safe inspirational story for the masses. In all fairness, he had been in public service for more than a decade. Still, it was enough evidence that democratic elections in this country were primarily popularity contests.
Our penchant for all things old and historical compelled us to explore the vicinity of Intramuros, the old walled city of Manila. However, we didn’t cut through its preserved and reconstructed heart (Fort Santiago and the cobblestoned Gen. Luna Street, aka Calle Real del Palacio). Instead, we randomly traversed the lengths of inner streets, such as Beaterio, Cabildo, Anda, and Solana.
The north end of Intramuros was noticeably more developed; many ancestral houses had been rebuilt with colonial architecture and converted into boutique restaurants, inns, and privately-owned museums. Though contrived, the attempt to recreate the old world ambiance was still a noteworthy effort.
Property development deteriorated going south. An increasing number of authentic colonial era structures were still extant; however, they were mostly decrepit, abandoned, taken over by informal settlers, or all of the above.
This side of Intramuros was less touristy. There was a less obvious attempt to recreate a bygone era; the place just seemed stuck in it. The worn-out look, makeshift food stalls, rows of pedicabs (a human-powered type of public transport), and children playing on the streets were telltale signs that this was a living community comprised of schools, offices, old apartment buildings, banks, convenience stores, and carinderia (small roadside eateries), which I imagined to be teeming with people on a regular working day.
Despite the area’s functionality, building maintenance was rather inconsistent. Run-down structures looked like they would cave in during a mild tremor; freshly-painted old buildings looked anachronistic with air-conditioning units jutting out of their walls.
On a historical perspective, this area WAS all of Manila. The impressive houses exuding the vestiges of their glorious past were dwellings of our erstwhile colonial masters that had shaped our culture – for better or for worse. I wondered if Filipinos then, who worked and lived – nay, toiled, survived, and died – here, walked the same streets with the same reverence as I did. Perhaps they felt fettered by these stone and wooden structures.
I realized nothing much had changed since the colonial era. Most Filipinos were still stuck in perennial poverty and servile servitude, products of the policies of the colonial government. The repercussions of the encomienda system that created the elite and oligarchs in society were still palpably felt. More than 80 percent of Filipinos lived below the poverty line and they lived to serve the rich and powerful few. The sight of two girls peeking into a window became a simplistic representation of Filipinos then and now – on the outside looking in, even in their own country.
Still and all, the relics of the past must be preserved precisely to understand our present. Desecration of old buildings in Old Manila could be a two-headed hydra: unbridled development that may deviate from period architecture and sheer neglect of extant structures. I hoped that politicians and the people would be enlightened to preserve the historical nooks of Manila through proper restoration and vigilant maintenance. This area was, after all, a history book come to life.
A fitting final note to this historical walk came to light as we approached the end of the road, at the corner of Muralla Street at the southern end of Intramuros and Aduana Street.
The striking ruins of the Intendencia, built in the 1820s, stood dignified despite its decades-long desolation. It was the Spanish colonial government’s administration building, known then as the Marble Palace, and was gutted by numerous fires. Only a hollow shell remained, but the cultural stamp it left on its former colony had survived its destruction, stubbornly indelible to this day.
This Spanish influence had been forever preserved in our country’s name. Across from the ruins, I found a small triangular plaza, Plaza de Espana, with a statue that I had not noticed until then: the likeness of King Phillip II of Spain, the king our country was named after, towering over a globe as if the world was his empire – a solid reminder of foreign domination in our history and psyche.
Indeed, Manila bore both the scars of its painful past and the faded colors of its old glories through its present-day landmarks and people. Exploring the city with street-level intimacy, I glimpsed her wasted magnificence peeking through the cracks.