Manila to Saigon (Orchestral Scones), Flying CebuPacific Airlines 540j40, 25th April 011

Last Manila sunset.

I see Manila through the grease smeared window of this metal bird.  Sprawling like brain synapses, flickering with orange ideas, flourescent nerve endings spreading out further than the horizon.  23:42 and things are beginning to settle.  If Manila was a brain, it would be a big one.  At least from this height.  Unfortunately, in the chaos, I couldn’t find its heart.

Big, grey, dirty concrete place smelling of old urinal.  Difficult to speak any higher of the place, even if I wanted to.  One piece of greenery to speak of and a few Spanish buildings.  Hard to get around and the air has a toxic quality.  Another great example of human greed, a startling gap between rich and poor.  16 million rich Filipinos, out of a population of 90 million.  Surely if we all chipped in, we could stop the need for people to live in houses made of litter and re-claimed corrugated iron, beside sewers and highways.  They still smile though.  Waving ‘Mabuhay!’

I think the main thing is, I just don’t like cities!

Giant skyscrapers are emblazened with neon signs reading, ‘God Saves’.  I wouldn’t count on it.  Not your Evangelical brigade.  Manila is a centre for corruption, poverty and air-conditioned American style shopping malls.  Just look at what we’ve built!  Its a real mess.  A diseased Babylon smoking heavy metals through a Coke can in tropical paradise.  They believe the hype on MTV here, soft drinks are cheaper than water and you have to reserve a table at Pizza Hut.  The rich get richer, the poor get sick and die young.  The catholics say no condoms and abortion, so the population grows out of control.  AID’s is a major problem.  Making a difficult situation, needlessly worse.

The Philippines is a country that has lost the plot and in doing so, lost a part of itself along the way.  I could see little sense of the pre-Spanish Philippines, or interest from people in their history or indigenous culture.  A little up north in Ifugao, but only for the tourists.  On Camuiguin I found a faith healer, Edwin, who chanted Catholic prayers and used a cross to prod and poke some local believers.  Otherwise, it seems the new Filipino is a Roman Catholic, brand consumer who lives in fear of God and wears Nikes, eats fast food and likes a sing song on karaoke.  I can think of worst traits, but non of these things are inherently Filipino.

It’s a more Latin America vibe than Asian.  A real surprise.  It is a fascinating mix to find in this corner of the world.  Like finding tequila in your noodle soup.  Having lived here for 3 years when I was a kid, I’m left with so many good memories of how it was, but leave with less of how it is.  Maybe its true what they say, you should never go back?   So many years of imperialism and oppression have left the Philippines with an identity crisis and left me confused about where it is going.

The people are warm and friendly, but constantly field the same questions, ‘Where’s your wife?’  They normally lead with this one.  Or ‘Where are you going?’, then show disinterest to the response.  The repetition each day can be tiresome and a test of patience.

Some of the islands and ocean down south are paradise on earth and the Cordillera Mountain Region is incredibly beautiful.  My two months here have been very relaxing and for fear of sounding like a ‘Pinoy’ basher, I won’t mention the food!  Pinakbet!

Catholicism, with a free reign to disseminate fear, has made everything a threat and people are constantly warning me about crossing roads, bag thieves, Muslims and any town that is not the town that that person is living in.   ‘Take care, take care, take care’.  Conurbation hazards, bag snatchers, ferries…..

Lele out side the Acquino airport

It took two attempts, but finally I’m on it.  Cebu Pacific flight 540j40 to Ho Chi Min City.  It has been a minor ordeal.  I missed Fridays due to a technical issues that revolved around my dozy melon and my birth date being the day my Vietnam visa started.  They also took my umbrella off me, due to the threat it caused and the fact that it could be fashioned into a weapon.  With a mindset like that, my entire backpack is full of semi-lethal items.  I could hijack the plane with an HB pencil, suffocate a stewardess with my briefs.  I’m a walking armoury here.  They didn’t care about the two cans of San Miguel Beer I had in there.  They are skulled in departures and my last pesos are spent on peanuts.

Today is Tuesday.  I have just had high tea the Shang-ri La Hotel.  A 5 star palace of opulence for the elite.  Perched on a couch seemingly plucked from Louis XIV’s hall of mirrors, sipping Darjeeling teas, with a Couchsurfer named Mike Torres.  We nibbled warm scones from a multi-tiered silver contraption, designed perfectly to suspend scones in mid-air at different heights.  A half (maybe quarter) sized orchestra of pristine model types, played behind us and regularly stand up and wandered around the foyer area, serenading rich looking Arabs, gangs of garishly dressed Filipino women whos eyes were retreating towards their hair lines.  Probably married to a corrupt general, corrupt businessman or a corrupt politician.  Its a reasonable guess.  I don’t know if you have ever seen an model play a flute, its a humbling experience.

Most people in this environment of luxurious overkill view me with a vague suspicion.  I am the worst dresses person in the room, probably hotel, taking into account the dishwashers.  I was wearing a favourite shirt, made from rice sacking and my scabby ginger beard.  To the sweeping strings of Vivaldi, I could not give a hoot.  I ate cucumber sandwiches, seemingly sliced with a surgeons scalpel.  Smoked salmon arranged to look like the insides of exotic flowers, on crackers.  In the toilet a young man bowed at me before the marble urinals, then offered me a scented towelette.

Mike was a real gent, a restauranteur, and is writing a blog about food, one restaurant per day for six months.  We had a great conversations about food and wine and cider and beer and cheese and cakes…………….  We both liked food.  As an Englishman, he thought he would treat me to good tea (he paid).  I don’t think he is familiar with  a good cup of Tetleys, but this was a decent substitute!  I thought of my many Filipino friends, working hard (ish) earning a few dollars a day, and how alien this world would be to them.  Still, Im here to enjoy this, so I drift off to what I believe is a lively Beethoven ditty and watch the fountains pump water in into the sky.

On the plane, I see the stewardess open the toilet and empty ice and some dirty napkins down the toilet and then flush.  You don’t get that kind of service on Ryan Air.  Her face is painted with colours and her hair shiny.  She looks like a doll, dressed in her startched uniform with ample lapels.  I ask her for a glass of water and she offers me bottled water for $2.  She giggles at me, talks with her friends in Tagalog about ‘Jezuz’ and then says in the voice of a child, ‘You look like Jesus Christ’.  The painted dolls all giggle as one.  Which may be interesting or faintly amusing to some, but its at least the 20th time today somebody has said this to me and vacantly giggled.  However even being the son of God, this still doesn’t qualify me for a free glass of water.  It is like Ryan Air after all.  I deal with my thirst and move on.  I’m ready to get back to Buddha and Asia.

It hasn’t been easy and neither is this flight.  The Vietnamese lady/ circus acrobat behind me insisted on sticking her feet under and between seat, I regularly saw her chapped toes heading towards my face or arm.  She was also a fan of drumming on my seat, when I stood up to give her an ‘unhappy with this’ look, she stares back blankly and then cackles at her dim looking partner as I sit back down.  The man beside me looks like a criminal, all wizened and twisted.  He clasps a small leather briefcase to his chest and looks very high on something.  Probably glue.  He leaps from his seat as we descend for landing, half running, half hopping, back and forth up and down the corridor, maybe he just realised his fate and is now looking for a way out.  Like a member of the ‘Fear and Loathing’ appreciation society, his eyes are bloodshot and bleak.  The stewardess’s let out a single screech in Filipino, high-flying banshee’s, he physically jolts and settles back into his seat.  Fumbling with his case and sweating like a condemned man.  Giving me suspicious looks all the time as I make notes of this insanity.

There are many Americans in the Philippines.  You can tell some of them, due to their odd size and proportion.  Invariably shaped like buckets of fried chicken.  Double the body, with only one head.  Many men are here for a good time, this means hanging around dingey bars, playing pool with a bunch of women wearing G-strings who like vulutures gradually pick your bones clean of dollars and cents.  But hey, they laugh at your jokes.  One of them is sitting in front of me with a tiny Filipino lady who must be, or at one time was working in one of these neon lit girlie bars offering sparkling conversation and felactio (not at the same time) to other buckets of chicken with some spare holiday money.  She is wearing a perilous pair of see-through plastic high heels and I thinks its zebra on her micro dress.

The Hawaiian shirted American comments on the cold streams of oxygen that are being pumped into the aircraft, and inquires scientifically, with dread in his voice, ‘what is this goddamn gas?’  To which the mini lady lucidly replies ‘It’s smoke’, continuing to sand down here cherry red nails.  I think it’s the only ‘gas’ that sprang to mind.  To which he seems comforted.  He mumbles something about always flying American and resumes his heavy breathing and sweating.

Which gets me to thinking as we approach our cruising speed of roughly 920 km per hour, through a turbulent tropical evening, crammed into this metal can at 30,000 feet, how calm we all are.  How easy we all forget about our surroundings, our fear of most things and just switch off to this brightly lit, pressurised reality.  Finding comfort in the over priced coffee and pot noodles on sale.  People seem more relaxed than they were on the ground.  Breathing deeply on the re-cycled air.  Or immersing themselves into the world of inflight shopping, 30% more expensive than at sea level, but you do get the ‘rush’ of buying a die cast yellow plane travelling at 600 miles per hour.
On arrival in Saigon.  The streets are full of steaming Pho carts and not much else.  Its 1am.  Taxi drivers snap at your ankles, with the deluded notion that you are a wealthy tourist with pots of money to waste.  People sit hunched over their bowls, slurping on the delicious broth. Street lights flicker, whores congregate around downtown street corners in all their lycra finery.

In Bui Vien Street, travellers smoke shisha pipes on the street side and fall about drunk and disorderly.  The buildings are crammed together, some only a couple of metres wide, but built high.  I notice a hotel, approximately 3.5 metres wide and 11 strories high.  Brightly coloured concrete fingers, stretching up into the grey sky.  Refreshing, no Pizza Hut, Western Brands or picture of Jesus to be seen.

We check into the hotel, down a small alleyway.  It’s cheap, clean and Nha is a very friendly sort.  He opens a shoe drawer in reception and a 1 foot long rat leaps out and scurries around our bare feet.  Nha bursts into violent action and grabs Mikes new white Nike shoe, wielding it like a mighty battle axe, high above his neat crewcut.  With death in his eyes and blood curdling scream, he pursues the rat out into the street.  Repeating something in Vietnamese that no doubt meant ‘Die,die,die,die,die,die’.  Mike follows closely behind shouting ‘Not that shoe brother, not my new shoes……please, not the shoe’

It’s 4am, no scooters yet and time for a Saigon beer (.30cents a glass) and some of those noodles. I like the sound, look and taste of Vietnam.

Saigon window

4 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    nanette kilmer said,

    Relieved to have read your blog about the Philippines. at least its not all negative and is a very honest description! YOur blog is the first blog I ever plan on reading. hehehe.

    • 2

      leroywatson4 said,

      Dear Nanette, Ive jusr re-read it and it sounds a little harsh! Filipinos and Americans! Ouch! I really dont like Manila. I am writing another peice about lovely Ifugao, much more positive. Hope all is well in Cagayan and this hasnt put you off blogs for life!!!! PeaceX

  2. 3

    mike torres said,

    Lee, what an honest and brutally frank depiction of your Manila visit! I loved it, by the way! But it’s so unfortunate that your stay here wasn’t pleasurable for you. Well, can’t really blame you. Good luck with your travels!

    • 4

      leroywatson4 said,

      Hey Mike,
      You are a true gent! I really didnt like Manila, not a huge fan of cities in general and like I said, I didnt find the heart of Manila and Im sure its there!
      It is a little frank! But I beleive an honest summary of what I saw. I loved many parts of the Phils and the wonderful people, but just dont like the whole Globilisation/ Americanisation (its prevalent in the UK too).
      Hope to see you in London soon for more tea and cake!

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