I had bought my plane ticket to Manila online with Cebu Pacific, the Philippines' answer to Ryanair. I had no problems buying the ticket, with the online check-in, or even with getting to the airport by midnight (my plane was scheduled to depart at half past one in the morning). What I hadn't counted on awaited me as I came to deposit my rucksack at the check-in counter and get my boarding pass. I handed over my passport and check-in printout. "And your return ticket sir?" I replied that I was not returning to Taiwan and that from the Philippines I was travelling onward to Malaysia. "But Philippine immigration requires that you show us an onward ticket." Ah... I tried explaining that I was planning to catch the scheduled ferry to Borneo and that these tickets were impossible to purchase without turning up in person. This failed to make an impression on any of the staff of the airline. So, with 15 minutes left before the end of check-in I persuaded the stewards to let me use their computers and quickly bought the cheapest online ticket I could find, one that I don't intend to use at all. I suppose it's an unofficial visa.
|The streets of Manila are overflowing with life. Around every corner there's a hive of activity.|
I finally made it to Manila, arriving at half past three in the morning. After passing through immigration (where I was not asked to present an onward ticket) and customs I promptly found myself a corner in the arrivals hall and went to sleep until a more civilised hour. Entering into the chaos that is Metro Manila was a clear break from my past few months in East Asia and I had dived head-first into the sensory overwhelming world of Southeast Asia. Gone is order and cleanliness and in its stead is anarchy, dustiness, the smell of stale urine on the streets, clouds of exhaust fumes belching out of decrepit jeepneys, and dirty begging children hassling you on the streets. It might sound like I hate the place already, but there is also a vitality and vibrancy to the place that doesn't exist in East Asia. There is an intimacy and passion between personal interactions that would be unacceptable among more conservative Orientals, and there are children everywhere. In Taiwan, Japan and South Korea children spend an inordinate amount of time at school, studying and attending cram-schools. You rarely see them playing on the streets.
Manila used to be called the Paris of the East. That was before World War II. There would be little chance of mistaking it for the French capital today (unless your only experience of Paris was its infamous banlieus). It got seriously flattened when the Americans retook it from the Japanese following intense warfare that left over 100,000 civilians dead in the crossfire. A few colonial remains can be round in the historic Intramuros district, but otherwise everything is functional concrete, often with rebars showing though the cracks. It's not a pleasant city to walk around, drivers show little respect to pedestrians, there are few public green spaces (I find it disgraceful that the pleasant green space around the Intramuros walls in the heat of the city is a golf course rather than an open space for all to enjoy). So where do locals go to relax and get some respite from the hectic city? Head to the malls!
|A building in Intramuros, though all that is now left is one wall, the rest having fallen victim to World War II.|
There is an obsession in the Philippines with malls. Six of the largest 25 malls in the world are to be found here. I can certainly see the attraction. In the hot, humid climate of the tropics the air-conditioned mallworld is a welcome respite. Furthermore the disorder of the country at large is held at bay by the order that reigns in the enclosed system of the mall. People can imagine, for a while at least, that the grime, pollution and mild anarchy are far away and that they are in Switzerland or somewhere similar, where floors are polished daily and designer boutiques abound. Fans of escapism have everything they need under one roof and some of the larger malls even have churches integral to their designs, so that you can pay your respects to God before paying them to Mamon.
|The SM Mall of Asia, the world's 8th largest, and one of dozens that litter the Metro Manila area.|
Malls are a vital ingredient to Filipino life. Another no less vital one (at least for the male population), but far less conspicuous, is the world of cockfighting. The traditional animal bloodsport has been popular or centuries and although they are no longer televised there are many cockpits throughout he country where men (the cockfighting world is almost exclusively male, and not just amongst the birds - I went with a local girl I had met in Manila and she was one of only a handful of women in a throng of hundreds of men) come to pit their prize cocks against each other on Sundays after church. The continued popularity can not only be seen by the packed attendances, but also by he number of cocks that can be seen in every neighbourhood, kept in separate cages, well fed and preened. In the cockpits the birds will be goaded using another bird to peck the fighter's back before the sheaths are removed from the spurs, revealing wicked, curved blades over 5cm long. The opponents are then let loose on each other and what ensues is a mad flurry of feathers, pecking and clawing talons. One bird usually gets the upper hand pretty quickly and it's just a matter of time then. I won't usually finish off its opponent so needs to be "persuaded" by stewards: he two birds will be picked up and pushed together until one is lying limp on the floor. Just as important as he fighting itself is the betting that accompanies it. Before each bout the spectators wave and shout at each other, trying to attract another person to take up a bet with them. As an idle onlooker you have to be especially careful at this time as the world of betting is full of countless gestures and symbols and an inadvertent nod or cough could land you in a costly wager.
|A proud man cradling his prize-winning cock.|
Luckily I managed to get away with my money still with me and my shirt on my back. We then went for lunch and had chcken!
|Two cocks facing off in the cockpit. This was half way though the fight. The white bird wouldn't make it out alive.|