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The International Writers Magazine: Travel in the Philippines

Manila on Foot
• Fred C. Wilson III
Manila on foot can be an enlightening adventure. It’s a trek that should never be taken at night, for obvious security reasons, or mid-day, for fear of heat stroke or flash flooding during Monsoon season.


Chicago and Manila share many similarities. The terrain of Metro-Manila and the Midwest is flat. Manila is light years from being a pretty city. The buildings are a dirty gray thanks to air pollution and inferior construction materials. Cars, busses, trucks and jeepneys belch out wads of black sooty smoke from a myriad of rusty exhaust pipes making the air so foul environmentalists throw up their hands in despair. Despite its drabness the Philippine capitol is a celebration for the senses. The true beauty of this city lies within its industrious yet long suffering people. The result of the recent building boom has sparked a revolution of concrete and steel as modern structures soar towards the heavens.

Another similarity Chicago shares with the Philippine capitol is its passion for guns.

Manila A haven for gun enthusiasts of every persuasion, pistol shops abound. Father & Son Guns has a wide assortment of every type of shootin’ iron imaginable this side of the south side. I remember one time when I was walking to church there was these two small boys I’d guess between 8 and 11 who were taking turns with a pistol blasting birds in trees or flying low over head. After watching these young shootists-in-training, I went inside for Mass only to notice the server-cum-security guard was packing a very large revolver in his belt as he stood on the altar with the presiding priest handing him the wine and water!

On front doors of banks, museums, hospitals, stores, and other public places there’s signs warning people to check all firearms at the front desk. That I can deal with; we have like similar signs here in the Windy City; however I could never feature packing ‘heat’ in the sanctuary though church security guards here take similar security measures.

And you think that’s unusual walk a little further. There’s this restaurant near the railroad crossing a few yards from the main entrance of UST (University of Santo Tomas) that brazenly bragged about the high caloric content in their greasy meals. And speaking about fatty foods during my twelve trips ‘back home’ I’ve only seen two outrageously fat fellows in Manila; some guy at the airport and me.

Filipinos eat on average of four full meals per day yet obesity appears very rare. I eat two meals a day, gulp down a gallon of tubig (water) eat more than generous portions of veggies, eat plenty of low caloric foods but at the time of this writing am still grossly overweight! How do they do it? When I asked four of my slim Filipino relatives the reason why they remain so skinny despite their high consumption of pork they nearly always replied “we sweat a lot” or “it’s in our genes” but maybe it was me asking a stupid question.

The city markets remind me of when I was a kid growing up in Chicago. We had this world famous slum called Maxwell Street. Historically this section of Chicago’s west side was initially settled by Eastern European Jews around the turn of the 19th century. It is now a sanitized Yuppie haven (Uck!) was much like modern Manila: loud, dirty, people on the streets 24/7, a perpetual outdoor food-fest, where you could buy anything (or anyone) so long as the price was right.
Maxwell Street 1940s

When I was a kid Mom used to pack us off most Sundays to Maxwell Street so we could observe her exercising the not-so-subtle arts of haggling with vendors. Her arguments were ones for the books!

Manila is alive with humanity. Point—back in the ‘Stone Age’ when I was ‘20 something’ my wife at the time and I took the Halstead bus to Maxwell Street. I wasn’t in the market to buy anything except two juicy Chicago style polish sausage sammiches’ (that’s sandwiches for you non-Chicagoans) with all the trimmings; we’re talkin’ about fist-fulls of steamed onions, hot peppers, mustard, relish sans fries but ooohhh so heavenly at Jim’s Polish Sausage; in time I learned to duplicate their recipe. As we were walking there was this guy across the street and we’re talking about a sloppy, short, fat slob of a man wearing a faded tan trench coat who could easily pass for somebody who’s face people would identify on a police blotter. He shouted at me from across the street, “Hey-YOU-wanna’ buy a HAT!?” I shouted, “Nah-I already gotta’ a hat!” He laughed and shouted back, “HA! That ain’t no hat! That ain’t SHIT!” My wife and I laughed ourselves to tears. We crossed the street and after a minute of good natured haggling I had an extra hat!

One afternoon as I was leaving Manila’s version of Jewel or Trader Joes there was this wild eyed street vendor who followed me for about three blocks tying to sell me this really nice samurai sword, a Moro Kris, two really wicked looking knives, a knuckle duster and four ninja stars (shurikens) in a fake black lacquer box for the princely sum of P1,000.00 - $20.00 US) a real steal! Like the clown I am I attached the metal sword blade to the handle and started waving it around like I was in a Jackie Chan movie! And you shoulda’ seen how passersby reacted. They gave me weird looks that said; “The kind men from the Happy House are on their way.” Sensing this I returned the sword to its owner and told him I really wanted this stuff; however getting it through airport security and Customs would be as hard as a happily married man trying to talk his way into Heaven after being caught dead in the arms of a teenage hooker; I didn’t say impossible but mighty hard. I politely thanked the guy and went on about my business.

Manila food
Manila streets are alive with hordes of one armed, even no armed beggars, hustling the locals for money. There are vendors who go from vehicle to vehicle selling anything from homemade candy, cigarettes, newspapers, towels, fire crackers, cold bottle water, religious items, snack foods, toys, you name it they sell it to vehicles stuck in traffic. Since most items are essentials they do a brisk business.

Manila is one big outdoor food court with barbeque grills on most blocks. You got your fried chicken, barbecued pork, fried chitterlings, sliders, ice cream and tofu custard vendors. For a mere P30.00 you can enjoy a complete meal of fried chicken (a breast and a wing), French fries, a roll, and an icy can of soda pop. You can’t top those prices anywhere.

Prostitution in Manila is a largely out of sight out of mind ‘business’ though I did on more than one occasion see ‘herds’ of girls in jeans so tight it was as though they were painted on. Why they lined the steps of a popular Marian shrine ran by the Redemptorist Fathers is anybodies guess. Once the church crowd arrived the ladies of the evening vanished like pigeons before a hawk. As I recollect prostitution is strictly confined to the many disco theatres that line some main streets of Manila. Unlike Bangkok, Albuquerque, Cicero, or Chicago, Philippine hookers confine themselves to established houses.

Manila is alive with children. Most of them going to and fro from the many schools; a few of them work the streets and hustle pesos from passing cars stuck in traffic. There were kids selling all sorts of essential items such as cold bottle water, candy, newspapers and various trinkets.

I do my own barbering; been doing this for years though sometimes my wife help trim the rough spots. A few years back when I was leaving Captain Barber’s I decided leave the building while I waited for my ride. There was a crowd of people across the street gathered around a small card table. These folks were preparing to cook something. Being the curious sort I decided to see for myself and there it was! Fido (dog) with his throat cut with a neat blood line around his neck being garnished for dinner for 10! It was a big white dog. I freaked! No biggie; I had doggie for dinner in South Korea when this girl I was with took me for an authentic Korean dinner in the country. I didn’t know it was canine until after the meal. Western tourists shouldn’t be so quick to condemn persons from different cultures for actions we Westerners may find repulsive. It’s their way. If people from non-Asian countries don’t like it; stay home. I love dogs as pets (I once owned three.) not dinner specials.

Whenever I’m abroad one of my ‘must dos’ is grocery shopping. I look at four things when in foreign super markets:

· what’s on the shelves
· meat/produce sections.
· the prices
· peculiarities/similarities between US and foreign products.

I note the similarities/differences of individual food items compare them to those I see at Jewel, Trader Joes, Treasure Island and other American grocery stores. I don’t do this out of some jingoistic notion that ‘our stuff is better than theirs’ or some other such nonsense but out of simple curiosity. I compare prices relative to a particular countries currency, standard of living and mean wages of its citizens to ours.

Though prices vary from country to country; product affordability are relatively similar. For example: if a bag of chips costs a few pesos in the Philippines relational to the value of the peso and the average pay check back home, the chips costs about the same in dollars in the States relational to the average American salary; the reason: GLOBALIZATION. Global price fixing is perhaps the primary reason whenever the World Trade Organization (WTO) has meetings riots soon follow. This is my theory; I’m no economist. I’m just talking about a casual walk to a grocery store, buying a bag a chips or a candy bar.

Seems like every country has a Sam’s Club or a Sam’s clone, the Philippines are no different. S & M Malls are located on 32nd Street & 5th Avenue in Ft. Bonifacio. The huge store was built in the image and likeness of Sam’s and Costco. It has that similar big box design; the blue and white colors make it look like a religious shrine on steroids: though the merchandise is naturally geared towards Filipinos and other Asian customers (lechon kawali and other Asian food favorites alongside popular American foods such as pizza, hotdogs, whatever) the big box feeling is much the same; huge yet homey. But there are differences: thanks to periodic terrorist attacks; before you enter the store armed security guards conduct body checks looking for weapons and explosives. Standing in line waiting my turn to be scanned, I made a ‘mistake’ and got in the women’s line. A pretty young doll like girl guard who was all smiles and giggles performed her usual routine. Unlike the States in the Philippines you sometimes get sometimes get to choose the gender of the officer who’ll pat you down. I never complained when she ran her tiny nimble fingers the length of my crotch and pants legs.

From my previous articles you know that I love to cook. For a time I was into cake decorating. Since I’m part of a family who’s into fitness, gyms, dieting, aerobics, and stuff like that, I’d end up eating most of what I baked. There’s a bakery a few blocks from ‘one of those naughty places’ that specializes in erotic cake design to suit your fancy regardless of gender preference.

My brother-in-law gave me a private tour of UST where he works. He took me to the top floor. There were rooftop classrooms. On one occasion we our took seats in the rear of the room to observe medical students do their stuff. He’s an MD and Section Chief of Nuclear Medicine. We roasted our butts off in the room! There were no fans or air conditioning. During their lecture-lab session I thought to myself, ‘how in ‘de hell could these poor kids stay so clean and fresh in those white uniforms in this hot-ass building?’ UST is a very old building in desperate need of a radical makeover. No fans, no ‘air con,’ no nothing. Now I know why the Japanese in World War II used that place as an internment camp; it’s just plain uncomfortable.

Some of the girls in that part of the world are outrageously bold. Point—my wife and I took a stroll through one of the large malls. During the course of our walk I soon found myself arm-in-arm with two of the cutest, the tiniest young twin girls I’ve even seen! Talking about short; these two honeys stood about 4 feet something almost like little persons wearing blue mini-skirted uniforms. They leaned their heads against my sides their tiny arms around my waist. They beseeched me to “Please take us home with you; please mister...” Normally one would think these young ladies were part of the nefarious Asian sex trade; they were only trying to solicit sales for a popular Philippine based American cellular telephone company!

I don’t have to elaborate on Manila’s crushing poverty; I hate to talk about it, but when walking Manila it’s in your face 24/7; you can’t escape it. It’s ghastly; a sacrilege! I’ve seen entire families wearing dirty rags huddled together on sidewalks sleeping and that’s for starters. Beggars line the fronts of churches pleading for help. Lately I’ve read about young children and entire families committing suicide to flee the pain of soul crushing poverty while the government does nothing.
Poverty in Manila

Social Weather Stations also reportedly noted a slight increase in the number of Filipino families claiming to be food-poor at 37 percent or an estimated 8.1 million families, from 36 percent or about 7.9 million households three months ago. Souce Filipino Times

While Philippine unemployment may be ‘officially’ around the 8% mark scores of people with jobs are working for mere ‘pennies,’ part-timers, and those with decent jobs have bosses who could make Captain Bligh blush like a school girl. One misstep and unlucky employees are literally kicked to the curb. In my many ‘walks around the block’ I’ve seen how poor the Philippines are. There’s a great divide between rich and poor. Squatters sleep and set up shacks under bridges, niches of churches, build shanty towns in, near fetid streams, or overwhelm and smother previously ‘good’ neighborhoods with their swelling numbers. I’ve seen street children hustle locals/tourists for money and food to stay alive as long established organizations/people grow richer and do nothing.

Manila is one hot city. Granted the Chicago heat can be worse but the foul air makes Manila summers all the more miserable creating a fetid greenhouse gas effect. Walking in all that heat can give you a powerful thirst. I needed a drink. I did what everybody else does I walked a few paces and plunked down my pesos at the nearest sari-sari store. The Philippine version of the original Moms & Pops, sari-sari stores sell everything. You want it they sell it my favorite being ice cold bottles of San Miguel beer and for the amazingly low price of P13.00 per bottle though the price may have went up a peso or three since I was there last. For years I’ve often wondered why no Walgreen’s; not a one in the entire archipelago. Now I know; street vendors, sari-sari stores and Manila mega-giant Mercury Drugs will give mighty Walgreen’s a serious run for its corporate bucks if that popular American chain ever decide to ‘invade’ the Philippines.

Along with Amstel Curacao (Netherlands Antilles), Crocodile (West African), Fred’s Wonderful Stuff (my home brew), San Miguel and Red Horse are among the best beers on the planet. After downing three bottles I purchased from a small store I continued my walk. Ten minutes later I reached my objective for that day the S & M Mall.

In Manila you run when crossing streets. Manila’s drivers are crazy. You shilly-shally in traffic you like you do at home you will-die; they’ll kill you and keep driving; be smart: take the cell phone out of your damn ear, watch the friggin’ traffic and don’t cross in the middle of streets. That’s why they invented street corners, stop lights and yes don’t J-walk; they’re pretty big on that one. Childish this may sound remember you’re not at home diddley-bopping down the block back in the Hood’ but another country where one misstep could be your last.

What was ironic was that this past February I had just left my gym and was on my way back home. Mind you the gym is directly across the street from home. After the light changed to green I stepped off the curb, walked within the zebra stripes, with 14 seconds on the counter to go when all of a sudden some clown ran the red light and knocked me flat on my ass! That was humiliating. After crossing some of the most dangerous streets on earth I had to get sent to the hospital crossing a street near home.

Don’t dress or act like a tourist; like a mark a walking target. When in the Philippines watch out for hidden holes and fallen live electrical wires when walking. I’ll never forget the story I read in the Manila Bulletin about a young lady who accidentally brushed up against a live wire that was camouflaged under some rubbish. The electrical current burned off her right arm, blinded her in one eye and left her face disfigured! Keep your valuables in your hotel safe or with a trusted person in the home you’re staying in.

Here are some sites of interest:

When planning a walking tour to the Philippines or any country reliable walking shoes are a must. Even if you speak the local language don’t ever walk alone as the song goes; take along a local person you can trust. Whenever I’m in the Philippines I always walk with a family member or a friend/associate of a member of my extended Philippine family. Not only will you explore more sites; it’s safer.

© Fred Wilson August 2015
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