common ground

Along a highway down which I often travel, there is this strange little neighborhood of clumped-together shacks built on rocks. A jumble of corrugated tin, faded tarpaulins, and sagging clotheslines, this little stand of houses looks like cross-section of Filipino life, like someone just cut down a neighboorhood street and dissected the homes in half. Like the rest of it is missing or something. It reminds me, in a way, of an ant farm, the way you can watch the ants going about their daily activities, and everything they do is exposed to the world. Every day when I pass by, this little microcosm is full of people just doing life. They stand in open doorways and yell to one another. They sit on stairways as dogs and children run around at their feet. They crowd the narrow alleyways and watch their neighbors pass by. A woman washes clothes in a tub. A man and his son are soaping themselves up outside their house. A group of boys is eating, squatting in front of a food stand on little plastic stools. A man stands against the rocks, his back to the street, pissing. Another, wearing only shorts, lays across a wooden bench, asleep. Someone else is busy cutting small scraps of wood, and another is busy trying to sell cigarettes and newspapers. Here, there are no secrets. It’s a strange comparison to a suburban American neighborhood, where discretion and modesty are expected. Homes are temples of privacy, and as shows like Desperate Housewives attest, you might never really know your neighbors, or what secrets lie behind their closed doors and drawn blinds, thick walls and quiet gardens.

Perhaps those that live in this little mess of a neighborhood would wish for a bit more privacy, but I like the way it seems like a true community. Like the narrow hidden streets of Jakarta, people here live life together. They eat together, go to Mass together, play together, and spend time doing nothing together. Perhaps it is simply their poverty that binds them (we’re poor, but at least we’re all poor together), but I sometimes miss that sense of just being togther in a community that can only stay alive when you’re surrounded by 22 million other people.

We’re all in this together, even when we wish we weren’t.

Christmas in Manila

I often lament the commercialization of Christmas. Well, all holidays, in fact, but I find the consumerism perpetrated against Christmas to be the most offensive. I balk at the red-and-green aisles of supermarkets that begin to proliferate just days after (in some cases, side by side with) the orange and black of Halloween costumes, fake blood and baby Jesuses piled together in sale bins.

For me, the Christmas season can only really begin the day after Thanksgiving, and even then it should be a slow progression into December – a little garland here, some eggnog there… I like the idea of a Christmas that doesn’t begin on the 24th and end on the 26th, but I still remember being aghast last year when I turned on a popular Chicago radio station to find that they had changed their “play Christmas music nonstop from Thanksgiving onwards” program to begin November 1st instead! Starting that early, you’ll be sick of silver bells and sleigh rides by the time the leaves finish changing color!

So you can imagine my horror when I learned that Filipinos -joyously, enthusiastically, and unabashedly- like to begin celebrating Christmas NOW. In September. Really, it’s been going on for a couple of weeks already, but it was discreetly hidden in jazzy instrumental carols played at low volume in shopping malls, and advertisements for gift fairs and markets coming up in the next few months.

But today, as I rounded the corner of a shopping mall on my way to my favorite breakfast place, my mouth gaped open to see huge silver snowflakes (snowflakes! In Manila!) and enormous red ornaments already hung throughout the entirety of the corridor.

It’s too early for Christmas!!! It’s only September!!! Halloween is still a month away (which they also celebrate, by the way), and there are days and days to count down before the Big Day, before the madness of pre-season sales and the frenzy of torn wrapping paper that follows. It’s too balmy, too humid, too tropical to be Christmas! There isn’t the telltale crisp chill in the air, no darkening days, no colorful autumn to ease the transition. Nobody’s Christmas cheer can last three months, and even the best intentions of goodwill towards men are abandoned in the wake of ninety days of traffic and crowded malls.

I was not prepared for this. I was just preparing for the end of Rahmadan and next week’s Rosh Hashanah, thinking of Eid celebrations and fresh-baked challah. If this is what Christmas is like, I can only imagine what will happen when the sentimental Filipinos gear up for Valentine’s Day (in November). Lord help us all…

Musings, and being amused

Some thoughts:

I wish it was fall. As a Midwesterner, and someone whose favorite month is October, I seem to have some sort of internal clock that tells me that this is just about the right time to start putting on sweaters and smelling apples and cinnamon and wanting to make my favorite soup in the whole world. This is unpleasant because it is about 850 degrees outside and you’re more likely to smell mangoes and pineapple than anything like cloves or nutmeg. But I am still conscious that, somewhere in a less-tropical part of the world, leaves are changing and the best holiday of the year is fast approaching. So, in the comfort of my air-conditioned apartment, I am defying the rules and making that soup as we speak, to go along with the apple-cinnamon tea I bought yesterday. To hell with mangoes; give me thyme and cardamom!

Also, I realized that I’ve been here for over a month and have only traveled to two places in the Philippines, La Union, where I learned to surf (read: got my ass kicked by the sun and waves and rocks), and Tagaytay, where I stayed in a garden and found my peace. With difficult flight schedules, not to mention the fact that most domestic travel involves PROPELLERS, I haven’t been motivated to travel much. The problem with this job is that you’re always somewhere fantastic, and you always have only a few weekends left to see it. That means there is a constant sense of having to take advantage of every last minute, and frankly, sometimes that’s tiring. I no longer have weekends of DVDs and books and cooking…the question is now, “should I explore a cave, dive on a coral reef, visit a hidden beach, or go surfing?” While that’s an amazing decision to have to make at a weekend, I have to give myself permission every once in a while to let something pass me by, and spend the kind of weekend that will allow me to catch up on my sleep…and my sanity. No one can be adventurous all the time, so I think I’m going to sit this one out. Unless someone has tickets to Palawan…

So, during my weekend here at home, doing nothing but reading books, I have started to realize that Filipinos are, without exception, two things:

1. Completely obsessed with karaoke. It borders on national hysteria. It’s a family activity, it’s a date activity, it’s something to do at parties and when you’re home alone and bored. There’s nothing like being stuck in traffic, with the windows down, and hearing, at 4pm on a Tuesday, someone belting out “Livin’ on a Prayer” from a nearby bar with, well, let’s just say, less than perfect pitch. And rhythm. And tone… Even worse, imagine being on a bus for eight hours, and after two of the worst action movies of all time (“Hellboy” and something worse), seeing the television screens light up with the display “Bee Gees Videoke, Volume 1″…and then hearing the entire bus sing along for the duration of the trip. You can buy karaoke DVDs in stores, you can sing in a bar at any time of day (no, really, any time), and you can even build your own karaoke theater in your home (I wish I could say that this last one was rare, but I’d be lying…). To top it all off, you can buy a special karaoke machine that records you singing, and then chooses several songs to make into a disc that you can give to your friends (who will, mysteriously, stop calling you after that). In fact, even as I write this, my new friend Carlo has just sent me a message telling me that he has karaoke in his room and will call me so that he can sing his favorite song to me (“Guess how many songs I have!” “How many?” “Twenty thousand! Even Korean ones!” “Can you sing in Korean?” “…no.”). Of course, I enjoy a good karaoke romp every now and then (although I only sing one song, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”), but this is just too much. Which leads me to Number Two…

2. Sentimental fools. Believe me, I’ve been trying very hard to discover good Filipino bands for the World Music Showcase, but…there just aren’t any, as far as rock is concerned (except 6cyclemind and their excellent video for “Saludo”, which may appear again later in this journal). As a population, Filipinos seem to have a soft spot for the kind of slow, mellow, cheesy, elevator-music, easy-listening sentimental ballads that either put the rest of us immediately to sleep or make us throw up in our mouths a little bit. A nation of gentle lovers and Michael Bolton fans. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but don’t come here expecting raucous rock concerts, mosh pits, or headbanging…unless it’s at a Michael Bolton concert.

Soup’s up!

Plastic Lights and Neon Jesus

When you are a traveler, every experience is an adventure. Simple tasks, like finding your way around a town, or ordering from a restaurant menu become gargantuan tasks with unpredictable results. You think your hotel should be around here somewhere (the guy you asked said it was “just five minutes” down the road, after all). You think you’ve ordered chicken, but you’re going to eat your plate of nondescript food anyway because it’s the only thing you can pronounce well enough to order… Whether excellent or disastrous, traveling always arouses strong feelings and stories to be told for generations to come.

The worst thing that can happen, then, is to arrive somewhere and find that you feel neither the joy of discovering paradise, nor the aversion that will elicit open-mouthed disbelief from friends back home, but that you feel simply…ambivalent.

Manila, for me, is a strange place, without character, unless you count the American influence that it has grasped onto so strongly that, save for the silver jeepneys and slightly shorter, darker, thinner people, you’d hardly know you’d left the U.S. at all.

I see the city as a world of concrete. It rises above and stretches out below and lines the streets and paints everything a dull gray. Its clogged, slow-moving highways are a jumble of thick black electric power lines (whose knotted confusion is just a fire waiting to happen), enormous barreling buses, and billboards advertising everything from whitening creams to Manny Pacquiao’s next boxing fight, in a display that makes me inevitably carsick during our daily two-hour journey downtown. There’s even a large neon sign that proclaims, with blinking fluorescence, that “Jesus (Alone) Saves”… Right above the street lined with monstrous, seedy go-go bars with cheesy names like “Crystal Palace” and “Catwalk”. Like the suburban U.S., the streets here seem like a repeating pattern of the same few shops – burger joints, fried chicken places, donut shops, Starbucks, and repeat, giving you the urge to ask, “Haven’t we been here before?”

Manila’s uniqueness comes mostly from its shiny jeepneys, the long station-wagon-cum-buses that are brightly decorated (rather, splattered) with everything from Bible verses to Transformers, with zodiac signs and pop song lyrics in between. Each one has a unique name and is fantastically painted with decals reminiscent of 1950s muscle cars. They veer on and off of the highways, sometimes crossing four lanes at once, sometimes going against the flow of traffic, sometimes making u-turns where you would certainly land yourself a ticket in the States, all while proclaiming boldly on the back of each vehicle, “How’s my driving?”

I feel uncomfortable with Manila’s contradictions, its proclamations of holiness and piety against its increasing desire for material wealth. It’s the only place that you can interrupt a packed nightclub’s music to let a pastor take the floor and speak…and the people actually stop and listen. And then they go back to reveling in alcohol and matchmaking and the kind of dancing that Jesus surely would not approve of.

It’s not that I don’t like Manila… -and I admit, perhaps my opinion is shaped in part by the constant gray skies and heavy rains of the season that slow traffic and cast dark shadows and dark faces over the city- I just don’t see it. Maybe I just haven’t understood it yet. Maybe it just needs some time…and a sunny day.