Escape from Manila

3 Mar

The streets were empty yesterday. Everyone was watching Manny “the Pac-Man” Pacquiao, the Filipino boxer and politician, in his latest televised fight. I should have travelled then.

But this is today and I have been stuck in a traffic jam for over an hour. The Virgin Mary smiles from the door of the jeepney in front, fumes slowly shrouding her.

The fumes smell horribly sweet and sour. The air-conditioning is broken and the sweat has glued me to my seat. The taxi driver hands me a polythene bag of Sarsi (a sarsaparilla-based soft drink) and ice. A kind gesture.

There’s Red Horse Malt Liquor on his breath, but he seems sober enough. He restarts the conversation, making two wrong assumptions about me: (a) I’m American and (b) I’m looking for a wife. “Already married,” I say.

“How many kids?” “One.”

He places his hand on his white-uniformed chest. “Only one?” he says, with a gasp. This is a Catholic country, after all.

At last a gap in the next lane opens. The driver stamps on the accelerator. We skim past a child in a Jay-Z T-shirt, trade horns with a tinted SUV. Then we hit full speed along Katipunan Avenue. Roadside barbecues. Basketball courts. Hip- hop blaring from KFC and McDonald’s. This could be a depressed part of the US, I think, but for other, smaller signs: “Cheerful cup cake Dental Surgery”; “S.D. Lucero – maker of artificial legs”.

“Can I open a window?” I ask, gulping my Sarsi. “Not good idea.”

He’s probably right. On the flyover near Balintawak station, I peer down at a chessboard of tin roofs. Shadow Manila. Where squatters live in homes made from stolen hoardings, bike tyres abd oil drums. Barefoot men napping under sackcloth canopies. A cockerel tied to the stilt of a water butt. Babies in cradles hanging from beams. A length of tape – “Police line, do not cross” – is looped over a mound of rubbish.

The flyover broadens into the NLEx Expressway . It’s lonely compared with downtown. There is an occasional tricycle (read Second World War-style motorbike and sidecar), the odd open-top truck packed with squealing goats, legs tied together. A bedstead on wheels.

Then the concrete blocks give way to palm trees and paddy fields flooded into swampland.

“Can I open a window now?” I ask. He winds both down. The cool air blasts in good, natural smells: pine trees, manure, orchids and burning charcoal.

Low-hanging clouds fleck the horizon like sea-spume, turning black as the afternoon wears on. The rain and the night fall together. On the roadside, peasant fires hint at things, while carabao (water buffalo) hides drip in the fields.

We arrive at Santa Maria, a village based around a pink Spanish church. “You sure you want here?” asks the driver. “Lonely here. Not much happen. Not much fun like in Manila.”

“Here is just perfect,” I reply.

First published in The Daily Telegraph 22/07/2011

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