Goodbye Manila, hello Manama!

I have known for a while about my next destination, but didn’t want to publicly announce it in case it changed (case in point: Greece). But I am already here, so I can announce that I am now in:

BAHRAIN

….and am absolutely ecstatic! I have been dreaming about the Middle East since I got this job, so I couldn’t be more excited. And to go to Bahrain is perfect, because it’s like an Arab World Primer, a tiny place where everything is more liberal and modern but still fits in with Muslim traditions and an age-old culture. So far, it’s awesome!

I have been here about twenty-four hours and have already smoked shisha, visited the Grand Mosque, and gone to a camp in the desert. Imagine what I can do in the next few months!

It shouldn’t be hard to see everything, considering the size of Bahrain. Bahrain is very close to Saudi Arabia, but comparing them would be like comaparing a fly and an elephant. No, seriously, look at this map. It’s tiny!

But for such a small place, it’s packed with stuff. Not only is it home to the Tree of Life, a four-thousand-year-old fort, and Formula One race track, but is also known for its pearls, gold, and of course, food (okay, that’s my addition, but still, it counts). You can wander the souqs, or markets, go four-wheeling in the desert, and watch dolphins in the sea. And if you ever run out of things to do here, you can always take a 45-minute flight to Qatar or Dubai for a weekend getaway.

Can you tell I’m excited to be here?! Photos to come soon…

P.S. New Year’s Resolution #1: Done.

Farewell to the Land of Mamsir

So, it’s come to an end. After ten months (almost exactly), two countries, and countless adventures, I am leaving Southeast Asia.

I didn’t really realize it until now, but Asia has changed me. Almost imperceptibly, but it has changed me.

For example:
My standards of safety have come way down. In fact, they’re practically as nonexistent as seatbelts in the back of Manila taxis. It no longer fazes me to be barreling down the highway in a vehicle that looks as if it will barely survive the next turn, loose screws rattling, with no restraint device to speak of, as we swerve pass a truck carrying loose logs and a motorcycle with five kids and a propane canister tied precariously to the back.

My standards of sanitation have also been lowered. Flushing toilets (see previous entry for graphic details) and proper tissue are a luxury. Meat need not be refrigerated. I’ve become more accustomed than I would like to the sight of cockroaches.

I have also developed an inexplicable affection for horrible American hip hop music (that’s all that’s on offer here, so…). Except that siren song. I still hate that one.

One of the strangest things is that my concept of beauty has changed. It’s so funny how Americans spend millions of dollars to look darker and more tan, while Asians spend millions of dollars to look whiter and more pure. But it’s strange to be the odd one out for so long, to get used to being taller, lighter, and more “exotic” than anyone else in the room, and used to being gawked at openly wherever you go. I’ve gotten quite used to seeing dark eyes and brown skin. Everyone else now looks pale by comparison. Weird.

I have been here a long time, and I will miss the chaos and color of Southeast Asia. New York may be the city that never sleeps, but those New Yorkers have never been to Manila, where shopping is done after dark and it is perfectly reasonable to be eating fish and garlic rice at 5am. I will miss never feeling alone, knowing that there is always someone around the corner, and there’s always a MiniStop open somewhere.

I will miss the closeness of the place, the way life seems more real and more….distinct, like a sharper image of a picture you’ve never seen quite as clearly.

I will miss being referred to as an ambiguous “mamsir” and getting the answer “Yes, mam” no matter what the question. I will miss getting a thousand “good afternoon mam!”s from across the room, and hearing “for a while” on the telephone.

I will miss Marciano’s, home of the best salads of all time, and Flapjacks, the pancake house where I spent the better part of every Sunday, and Greenbelt, where I whiled away countless hours wandering around eating ice cream, and the Persian restaurant we only went to once but dreamed about ever since, and the Prince of Jaipur, and all the places I danced salsa with Carlo and all the clubs where I spent Saturday night with Osho and Nini and Nick and Santi.

I’m glad to have had all the memories I’ve had of this Asia, beautiful islands and tropical getaways and ancient cultures and, above all, the people. There is no place like it in the world.

The Power of the Ox

Well, we’re one month into the new year (but only one week into Chinese New Year! Does that count?) and I’ve hardly updated anything.

The thing is, I haven’t really had anything to update. I’m STILLA IN MANILA (sorry, I couldn’t resist), and unfortunately, it’s been the kind of short-term trip that’s kept me from being able to take any kind of weekend jaunts to tropical islands or lush hideaways. So I’ve been an urban trekker, exploring downtown Manila and all its corners. I generally find Manila to be an exceedingly ugly city, but I enjoy the challenge of looking for beauty in unexpected places, and so off to Quiapo it was.

When we were invited to go there, we were told, “Put your wallet in your front pocket. Don’t bring anything important!”, so I left my brand-new Canon SX110-IS (which I LOVE) at home…and regretted it for the rest of the day.

Quiapo, home of the legally-copied (read: totally pirated) DVD market, is a bustling hub of activity. Like most of Manila, it’s just FULL of people. On every corner, there are DVD hawkers who will offer you just exactly the film or show you are looking for, if only you’ll follow them down dark tarp-covered alleys into the bowels of the city, where, at a tiny stand with an old TV, they will sell you any DVD you want for 35 pesos or less (about 70 cents).

Out in the sunny streets covered with strings of flags, there is a mass of chaos: dogs, cats, kids. Mothers at food stands grilling skewers of pork, fathers driving noisy sputtering tricycles, weaving their way through the thousands of shoppers out for the day. People crowd the nearby fast-food joints for a quick snack, and then it’s off to the Chinese New Year celebrations in Binondo, another Manila neighborhood.

Every city has a Chinatown, and Manila is no exception. Here, Binondo (as it is called) is grubby, grungy, and a little bit seedy. The stench of polluted water and uncollected garbage lingered in the air. The pollution is so thick that your throat burns with black tar after just a little while, and the smell begins to make you slightly queasy.

Luckily, on this day, there was enough to keep me curiously occupied. The streets were full of peddlers with their lime-and-pineapple wreaths, ginger adorned with red ribbon, and thousands of boxes of flavored tikoy (in English, always ambiguously referred to as “glutinous rice cake,” apparently a new year tradition that involves cutting, battering, and frying this cake. That sounded like too much work). There were dragon dances and lucky coins, jade fishes and golden oxen. There were red balloons and bright red lanters and colorful banners streaming with “Kung Hei Fat Choi”. There were street stalls packed with dim sum and mochi and fish balls and candy, and there were also stands of fruits, vegetables, and live jumping crawfish. At night, there were fireworks, and of course, more food.

Since I didn’t have my camera, I returned the next day to snap a few shots and see a cultural show of traditional Chinese song and dance. Unfortunately, among the hot masses, the smell of the city had also returned, and I had to escape before it got the best of me.

On the way, I also ran into the parade of the Santo Nino. You can read the Wikipedia link, but basically, the Santo Nino is an image of the Christ Child which was brought to the Philippines by Ferdinand Magellan, lost for almost fifty years among non-Christians (who would surely have destroyed it), and then found again in a burned-out building, unharmed. As a miracle the figure is now revered.

But, listening to the story, you’d think there was just one special Santo Nino, right? The exact miraculous one found so long ago, or at least an equally-powerful replica. So when we heard that the Santo Nino was coming from the island of Cebu to Manila on his yearly pilgrimage (Santo Nino World Tour ’09 – I hear Madonna’s opening for him), we expected, well, just one.

What we actually got was a cross between an American Girl convention and a parade. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of Santo Ninos, dressed in everything from kingly garb to what appeared to be a baseball uniform. Like some kind of “collect them all” campaign. Alright, so everyone brought their own Santo Nino on some kind of religious playdate, but at least we assumed that, when the parade started, there would be just one Santo Nino float. Again, oh how wrong we were. There were hundreds! As the parade started, we exclaimed, “There he is!” as a float adorned with flowers and topped by a golden-haired doll made its way through the crowd. But then, behind him, another similar Christ Child. And another. And another. All the way down the street, into the lane, through the parking lot, and back until we lost sight of them in the distance. Maybe it was rather some kind of Santo Nino convention, like Trekkies.

Anyways, in short, because of the threat of gangfighting and/or kidnapping for ransom, I did not have the proper instruments to document these pieces of life in Manila. But I did the best I could…

Here are photos from Chinese New Year and Kultura Filipino dance show. Enjoy!