A non-winning piece. Who would want to publish one? A reject from a contest, something that the judges found unworthy. Well that’s what this article is. And since it is what it is, only my blog will publish it and so here it is 🙂

Some might say Manila is best remembered by those who have left her. I am one of those people, and I would like to share with you how I rediscover Manila each and every time I am there.

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Rediscovering Manila, by Bambit Gaerlan

As with some people who were born in Manila I never got to know it well enough, and then I had to leave it. I remember hearing mass as a little girl at the Sto. Domingo and Lourdes churches, shopping trips to Avenida Rizal and Sta. Cruz, to Shoemart and Syvels, and ice cream and barquillos treats at the Automat in Makati. That was the Manila I knew.

But I also grew up hearing my aunts and uncles grousing about traffic, pollution, criminality, until my father decided to pick us up and hie off to Cebu. Since then I had thought of Manila as the Big Bad City, the Patron State of Pollution, the purveyor of purchases forbidden by budget. I had learned to avoid it, like a demon that would corrupt my soul should I ever set foot in it again.

Then I was given the chance to give Manila an opportunity to tell me I was mistaken. Twice. Once, after having been away for twenty years, and then again after having been away for one. Both times Manila proved me wrong in more ways than I expected.

I rediscovered Intramuros, where I had been to as a schoolgirl, bound by the necessity to come up with a field trip report in fourth grade. Now that I no longer shun history as something merely for which to get passing marks, I began to appreciate the cobbled streets and the 16th century architecture. I saw how it must have been like for Jose Rizal, himself a weary traveler who had come home to his roots, and wrote his last farewell to family and country while incarcerated at Fort Santiago. I recalled the stories about the dungeons there, into which the Pasig River overflowed at high tide, turning them into execution chambers, and I would shudder, not at the possibility of getting a failing grade in Social Studies, but because now I can imagine the plight of those imprisoned here during the Spanish occupation.

Later on I realized I could visualize Philippine history by going to the Ayala Museums and looking at the dioramas that have been constructed to depict life in the islands from the pre-colonial Ifugao tribes to the promised returning of the Americans on Red Beach in 1944. I didn’t know until recently this was all possible, and that to go from Intramuros to Ayala meant only a switch in trains via the LRT/MRT and a short walk from EDSA.

All that intake of history and culture can make one very hungry, and what better place to eat than at the oldest restaurant in the Philippines? I discovered Ambos Mundos, on Florentino Torres St. in Sta. Cruz, Manila, with its quaint bird cages hanging by the foyer, with the house specialties written in chalk on a green standee by the entrance. I learned not to be afraid of the wild boar that sleeps tethered on the sidewalk by the restaurant’s entrance. It is tame, and so is the one sleeping at the Wah Sun Cantonese Panciteria across the street. “Ambos Mundos” translates into “both worlds” and indeed this restaurant offers the best of both Spanish and Chinese dishes, without burning a hole in my wallet.

In a small pocket in Makati called Guadalupe Viejo I found the Rockwell Center, and what used to be a thermal plant now transformed into one of the classiest malls this side of the Pasig River. And here I realized I could do almost everything, shop, dine, both cheaply and expensively, do my groceries, watch a movie and pick up school items for my kids.

And that perhaps is one of the best things about Manila; it has, literally, everything.

Everything from the cheapest food to sustain the soul, to the most expensive and lavish menus, Manila has it. There is a small canteen just across the Centennial Airport, you can’t miss it on the right side of the street if you follow the bus route, just inside the gate that the bus conductors and locals call “butas” or hole in the wall. They serve Filipino food with a touch of Kapangpangan goodness, and there I can have a full hearty meal for less than a hundred pesos. Manila also hosts restaurants such as the one famous for its wagyu beef and affluent clientele, as well as establishments frequented only by expats and foreigners.

Manila has the fanciest malls and boutiques, from The Podium to the Trinoma, and the Powerplant Mall, where all the designer labels are to be found. But it also has the fabulous thrift shops in Kamuning and Bangkal, known for its antique furniture and accents for the house. I once saw an old working jukebox in the two-story shop just past Chowking at the corner of EDSA and Kamuning Road, where the store owner gamely showed me how a token could start up the old machine, and played a couple of 45rpm records for my listening pleasure. I found myself wishing that I were moneyed enough to buy it and install it in the den of my dream house.

I also found a reed and shell curtain, something that I had always wanted to have in my house, at the hawker stalls at the Dapitan Arcade. I discovered that this was the place for over the top decorators who believe that more is more and yet manage to spend a lot less than they would have elsewhere. It had everything from all sizes of woven baskets to old and still working neon signs.

At CubaoX I found center tables made out of old wooden doors, mounted posters of classic movies, ancient Singer sewing machine frames now become legs for a mahjong table. There is a store there where I could buy authentic Japanese décor, costumes and toys. When I became tired and hungry from all the shop browsing, there was that good old restaurant that could make me feel that I had just been dropped into the middle of the Cuban revolution.

And while we’re on the subject of unwinding and hair-down-letting, Manila certainly has the best places to do that as well. If I dropped a pin on a map on EDSA it will definitely hit one, anywhere between Pasay and Philcoa. Any kind, from the low-down to the highbrow, Manila will provide. I could walk along Remedios Street in Malate or saunter down Burgos in Makati, shimmy with the young folks on The Strip in Ortigas, or down beer with the blues while conspiring with the artists and poets on Visayas Avenue.

And when I feel I have not had enough of Manila, when I am compelled to stay for one more day, I can sleep where my budget will allow me to, from the transient houses in Comembo, Makati, or if I am traveling with family or friends we could choose the more accessible ones that are practically anywhere near to any commercial area.

One thing I am sure of is I will never run out of places to visit, shops to rummage in, places to eat or dine at, holes to water up or pots to melt in. Because Manila not only has all the places, it also has all the people. People who have come here to live and work because they’ve realized it would be cheaper for them to do so. People, who have been sent here from abroad, people who have come here to study because Manila has some of the best schools. People from nearby cities who come here simply because it is what it is, Manila.

People who have come here from the provinces like me, having been away for the longest time, most of us sharing the hope that perhaps here, in Manila with all it has to offer, is where our dreams may bear fruit. It may have broken our hearts before but it will always be there, with something new, something rewritten, something old as the hills we came from.

Manila will always be enticing, with its bright lights and big buildings. It will always be astonishing, with the speed and heights by which it grows. It will always be inviting, with its call centers and Hollywood-worthy locations. It will continue to frustrate us with its traffic, annoy us with its noise. But it will never cease to be fascinating, especially for those of us who have known it, have alternately loved and hated it, like an on-again, off-again relationship with that someone who never fails to win us over with a look, or a smile.

Even now as I sit at my worktable here in Davao City, I wonder if the wild boars of Torres Street still sleep in tethered safety despite the floods that have come and gone. I wonder if that shop in Bangkal now has a new set of Matrushka dolls on display. I wonder if there is a way to ship that mahjong table with the sewing machine legs to where I am now, and if that Sailor Moon costume I saw would fit my eight-year-old daughter.

It may not be home to me anymore, but it will always be a friend. Manila will always be there to rediscover, and for all the times I have left it there will always be one more time when I will come back. Because I know that even if Manila may still be the Big Bad City for some, it will always be the Bright and Beautiful City for me. I can never pass up the chance for one more look at a Manila Bay sunset, said to be one of the most beautiful in the world. For me, Manila’s famous sunset is not just the end of day, but the beginning of something new, one that happens unfailingly each and every day.

Rediscovering Manila

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