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.

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