Once 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?
But 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.
Apart 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.