Monday, August 29, 2011

THE MYSTERY OF MANILA'S APPEAL: WHY I'M DIGGING THE CAPITAL OF THE PHILIPPINES

It's confession time again. Until recently, the only things I knew about Manila was that it's the capital of the Philippines, a country that used to be a United States commonwealth, and that Claire Danes, who filmed her 1999 film Brokedown Palace there, once called it a ghastly and weird city that smelled of cockroaches, with rats all over, no sewage system, and people who do not have anything -- no arms, no legs, no eyes.

Why anyone would take travel cues from Danes is beyond me. I trust the opinions of my Australian friends Marcus and Craig a lot more, and since both of them gave Manila rave reviews, suggesting that I check it out during my summer tour of Southeast Asia, I decided to give it a go. I'm glad I did, though I must admit, Manila might not be for everyone.

It has nothing to do with cockroaches, rats or armless, legless, eyeless people, none of which I've seen since my arrival. It rained for most of my first three days in Manila, which made sightseeing difficult. But in truth, in the Makati City area where my hotel is located and where I'd been advised to stay, there weren't so many sights to see. There were lots of five-star hotels, restaurants and malls, but for the most part, I could have been anywhere. The architecture was pretty nondescript, and some of the buildings were bordering on dreary and drab; others could use a good scrubbing and a fresh coat of paint.

Still, as I looked out at the view from my 14th-floor room at Antel Spa Suites by Best Western, I couldn't help but wish I had more than four days here. It certainly had nothing to do with my four-star living quarters. I've learned that four-star hotels in Asia are hit and miss -- usually rising or falling on the quality of the ablution chambers, for which my expectations can be unreasonably high -- and Antel was more miss than hit. The two-and-a-half-star bathroom gave the accommodations the distinct smell of mildew (Note to hotel owners: Shower curtains are done. It's time to replace them with glass doors that actually keep the water inside the tub), and the complimentary breakfast was neither as varied nor as tasty as it had been at my other hotels in Southeast Asia. Memo No. 2: Scrambled eggs should never be served at room temperature!

But why complain? I was too happy to be there -- in Manila, if not exactly Antel Spa Suites. Though my first impression of the city had not been so great since I arrived during peak rush-hour traffic (weekdays from 5 to 9pm), over the course of the next few days, I noticed a lot more positives than negatives. The essence of Manila's appeal, though, remains elusive, a true mystery.

Buenos Aires has romantic faded glamour. London has culture. Rome has history. Milan has style. Melbourne has the intersection of urbane and bohemian. Bangkok has energy. New York City has variety. That's why I love them. But what, in a nutshell, does Manila have? It's hard for me to say, but that doesn't mean its good qualities aren't somewhat quantifiable. The refreshing dearth of European and Australian tourists makes it sort of the Bogotá, Colombia, of Southeast Asia. And despite the traffic jams and incessant horn honking that I convinced myself was more safety precaution than cranky impatience in action, there is less noise and pollution than in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur due to fewer motorcycles and the absence of lumbering city buses. Instead, multiple-passenger jeeps carry people from point A to point B. Hop on and off for only 8 pesos a trip (or roughly $.20).

And then there are the people. Over the last two months, I've become accustomed to encountering kind and helpful locals all over Southeast Asia, but in Manila, they've turned hospitality into a near-art form. Once I got over my initial suspicion that perhaps they were mocking me, I started to look forward to every encounter with a local and even felt slightly disappointed when they weren't inappropriately over-the-top.

Is it necessary to shout your greeting to incoming customers -- "HOW ARE YOU TODAY?!!!" -- so that everyone in 7-11 can hear you? Probably not. I felt like I was in one of those sitcoms where everyone talks louder to people who are hard of hearing or can't understand English. Eventually, though, I started to give it right back to them, and I made surprising discovery: Being campy-friendly is worth the effort because it actually improves your mood. Note to self: The next time I'm in New York City, share this tidbit with all of those sour-faced drones who work with the public.

I'm still not sure what went down at Bed my first night in town, but judging from the staff's reaction when I returned the following night, it must have been something good. Everywhere I went, they greeted and high-fived me like I was a hero returning from war. After having an onstage flashback, I asked one guy if I had gone up there at any point during the previous evening. "Yes," he said. "But don't worry. You were very cute and funny." Welcome home, I thought to myself.

I know that I've only touched the surface of Metro Manila, and it will take a lot more than four days to see everything that this fascinating area has to offer. Next time (and yes, there will be one), I want to explore Quezon City as well as some of the beaches that the locals keep recommending. My friends in the U.S. have warned me about the potential danger that awaits American citizens in the Philippines (robbery, kidnapping, possible death), but I'm not worried.

Considering that my friends on the U.S. East Coast had to deal with both an earthquake and Hurricane Irene last week, is anyplace "safe"? My Manila motto: Live life to the fullest, remember that all sales are final, and down every tequila shot like it could be your last.
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