Eating Mangosteen in Manila

1965548_10151888968256853_138705510_oOnce upon a time, before some asshole in Brazil wiped out my bank account, I bought a ticket to Manila to see my dear friend Carolyn. When the date came around for our three day rendezvous, I decided to still go, even though I was pretty broke.

I had been to the Philippines before, to the beautiful tropical island paradise of Boracay several years ago. Manila, a big, bustling dirty city didn’t hold much appeal for me. But, being in the unfortunate position of constantly saying goodbye to my most valued female friends when they inevitably leave Seoul for greener pastures, I needed a fix of BFF-ness, a dose of pedicures, gossiping, eating, shopping, dancing.

What first struck me about this congested, polluted city was the contrast. Arriving at Carolyn’s condo complex, we are greeted by security guards, palm trees and walk into a gated community where she resides in a very comfortable two bedroom apartment, right by a Shang-ri La-worthy swimming pool. Yet a five minute walk  down the road, which has traffic zipping by at all hours, is a very dirty, swampy river lined by slums.

So there you have it. The snotty privileged people living side-by-side with people who have literally nothing. The rich people live in their own little bubble of beautiful, air conditioned mega-malls, while the poor people…I don’t know what they do. It didn’t look like the kids who run around shirtless and in bare feet went to school.

Like many places in South East Asia, Manila is heaven for creepy sexpats. Sleazy red light districts abound around the city centre, their neon-lights beckoning to any male with a fat (or not so fat) wallet and a pulse. If that’s not your thing, why not stop by and see some midget wrestling?

1898789_10151888968441853_1598239906_oBut of course, there are good things too. Carolyn and I bonded over a shared love for what can only be described as pigging out, so our first stop was to an international food market where we binged on blue cheese ice-cream, Moroccan lentil soup, vegan pizza, baklava, waffles. We bought mangosteen, a fruit that seems to be a mini-obsession in Korea, to eat later.

We also strolled through a lovely park in the center of the city, one of the  few green spaces, bumping into Carolyn’s zany expat acro-yoga friends before joining in a session of capoeira with her new group. Having an instructor who is also an elementary school teacher was super-fun, as was playing with a bunch of adorable little kids. I had to be extra careful not to be clumsy and kick them in the face.

There was salsa dancing at the Mandarin Oriental with a bunch of UN/NGO staff who were on their ‘R&R’ from the devastated region where Typhoon Haiyan had hit. It was fun to be introduced to Carolyn’s posse of ‘D.I.’s’ – these guys are the smooth talking, professional dancing dance instructors who are paid to make women feel like they don’t have two left feet. The next day at the mall I got my hair cut because it cost $5 and we got couple’s massages (sans happy ending) because Manila is the kind of place where one can afford such luxuries.

Finally, in our last hours together, we attacked our mangosteen, which tastes more sour but much better than the frozen ones we encountered in Korea at a buffet where we honed our binge-eating skills. We sat by the pool for a while then I had to make my way through the gray air and erratic traffic to the airport, only to be met by the fact that my flight was going to be delayed by six hours. Cebu Pacific is the worst airline in the world. I am ashamed to say that I knew this when I booked my flight and have experienced their crap delays before. Never again will I fly with them. Mark my words.

1654510_10151888967731853_1525320017_oApart from the obvious ‘ohmygodthereissomuchpovertyhere’ realization, it also dawned on me that Filipinos are incredibly nice and friendly. Everywhere we went, we were met by big smiles, kindness and patience. I also noticed how comfortable they seem to be in social situations and, perhaps because most of them can speak English, are very open and willing to talk about a range of things to complete strangers, creating a sense of warmth and closeness. Also, apart from the people, my second favorite thing about Manila is the public transport. Drivers name their buses, vans and taxis, kind of like people name their boats. The names are often sweet or funny. My favorite taxi name was ‘Power Hug Taxis.’ Next time I encounter a mangosteen, or a vehicle with a funny name, I will think back to my found memories of Manila.



Birth & Death

fern-frond-223I was so happy to receive an email this week announcing that a dear friend of mine had given birth. In fact, I didn’t even know she was pregnant. As part of a backlash against Facebook, the happy couple made sure not to announce any baby-related news via social media. They are a fabulous couple and although I only met J. a few times, he restored my faith in men a little as he held up a large cardboard sign at the port of Yokohama as our ship set sail around the world that stated, loud and clear, ‘I LOVE YOU’ as Miss A wiped tears from her eyes. I was lucky enough to spend three months traveling with her  and getting to know an incredibly strong and wonderfully irreverent woman. And now, years later, they share a past that includes living in Japan, Canada and now England together, a year long adventure through South America while supporting each other through their various career changes (Her: human rights volunteer to NGO account manager, Him: engineer to lawyer). Now they have created a human life, currently known as ‘Peanut.’ He is truly blessed to have such wonderful parents, even if they can’t think of a real name for him.

And in the same week, I was saddened to learn of the death of one of the most influential people in my youth, my wonderfully eccentric and caring drama teacher. She died after a long battle with cancer, just months after she finally retired and also was formally recognized by the country for all her support and contribution to the performing arts and young people in NZ. I was fortunate enough to travel to the U.S. with her when I was just a 16 year old whippersnapper, and because of her, I had one of the most memorable and incredible experiences of my life. It wasn’t long ago that I wrote a letter to her, congratulating her on her retirement. And now she is gone. Many years ago, she used to start sentences with ‘When I retire…’ It’s sad that she didn’t have much time to enjoy it. And while she loved what she did (it would be impossible to be that dedicated if your heart wasn’t in it), she must’ve left this world with some unfulfilled dreams. She will always hold an important place in my heart and I will always be grateful to her as a mentor and role model. As I age physically and grow mentally and emotionally, I realize more and more how formative she was to my life. Her very untimely death serves as a reminder to live our lives to the fullest, to seize the day, because tomorrow we might not be here. May you rest in peace, Miss Walsh.


Dance in Honour of the Gods

candomble-13Candomble (which means what the title says) is a syncretic religion of African origin that is popular in Brazil. It was brought with people from Africa who were forced into the slave trade and is still widely practiced, particularly in the north. While I was in Salvador, home to generations of people who had descended from slaves, and where there are many devotees of this religion, I had the opportunity to attend a ceremony. A fellow traveler organized for us to meet his Brazilian tour guide who practiced the religion and would be able to take us off the beaten path, so to speak, to attend a ceremony.

And so one warm, dark night we met this woman in a ‘safe’ area on a pitch black street where we kept tripping over upturned cobblestones and the protruding roots of trees that were colonizing the pavement. As is tradition, we were all dressed in white and our guide, a beautiful and voluptuous woman who was a Brazilian of African and Japanese descent, spoke perfect English (after a high school year abroad in the U.S. = Rich Brazilian) and introduced us to her friend, a small woman who was carrying her adorable 6 month old baby girl. We drove around winding hills, past the juxtaposed colonial mansions and rusting shacks until we arrived in a favela. Looking around, it reminded me of the song ‘little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky-tacky…’ It was so peaceful. No gangs. No guns. Just people enjoying their evening with friends and family. Dogs and children wandered about. Although it was dark, we could see specks of light coming from the layers and mazes of houses that stretched out far below us.

We walked into the temple, which was unremarkable from the outside. Inside, we sat in a large, square room where there were about 50 other people seated around who would both watch and participate in the ceremony. I was surprised to find signs in English that read ‘Do not take photos or videos.’ I was also surprised to see some very white-faced, blond-haired people inside – tourists like us. Not so off the beaten path then.

Witnessing exotic religious ceremonies like the one we attended is like crack to an anthropologist. Indeed the hours we spent there watching the worshipers dance around in circles in their elaborate white costumes and enter into a trance were were both fascinating and mesmerizing as they attempted to become possessed by their personal deities. At its most simple, it could be described as some people dancing around and around to the sound of beating drums. However, a candomble ceremony is very complex and intricate, with a lot of different components playing out at the same time. Many of the components  are not perceptible, or easily understood to a newcomer. More information about the origin and beliefs of the religion can be found here.

I was also interested in watching those who were watching the ceremony. So during the parts I deemed to be repetitive, I would look around and take in the body language (and bodies – why are Brazilians so beautiful?) of those sitting around the room. The gaggle of tourists off to my left seemed at first to be intrigued which then segued into confusion and then, after the first two hours, disinterest. Most of the Brazilians, however, were deeply immersed in the experience and were genuinely moved by the music and dance. I just could not fathom how something like this could happen in New Zealand which feels like a spiritual desert in comparison to Brazil’s lush rainforest of religions and spiritual traditions.

Before and during the ceremony, our guide warned us that we might start to feel dizzy or even go into a trance ourselves, depending on how sensitive or open we were to the energies that were being evoked. At times, she herself became a bit woozy and started to push the energy away with her hands. I didn’t feel anything and may have even stifled a yawn or two near the end. But later, lying in bed, I felt like my nervous system was overstimulated while simultaneously feeling drained. It was hard to fall asleep, but eventually I did, feeling grateful for having witnessed something so beautiful and sacred, for being able to experience a culture and religion so different from my own.