If you have been to Kerala, where I come from, metamorphosing into a sweaty sodden mass the minute you step out of the air-conditioning is not daunting. But even then, the enervating humidity of Manila in August takes some getting used to.
As you amble about the streets below the soaring skyscrapers of the city, you will notice a blur of humanity all around you. This is probably because out of the Philippines’ 7,000-odd islands, only about 37 are inhabited. Of those, the majority population seems to be in Manila.
But for all the heaving masses around you, there is serene order. And if you are a woman, Manila is heaven. No one but no one tries to edge too close, pass lewd comments or bother you in any way.
As my friend, Manoshi Mitra, Senior Development Specialist with the Asian Development Bank and no slouch when it comes to gender rights, told me, Filipinos are very gender correct. It is a place, she said, where girl children can be children and be relatively safe.
Having told you that Manila is vast and sprawling, you will wonder how to get around. If you have a few shekels to spare, grab a taxi. Or if you want to scrimp a bit, take the light rail transit, the metro rail, the metro ferry to criss-cross the city’s rivers. But if you are one of those intrepid travellers who, when in Manila wants to do as the Filipinos do, hop on to one of the quaint jeepneys made from discarded aeroplane metal. They are cramped, filled with sweaty bodies. But they definitely give you a taste of authentic Manila.
Underneath the gigantic overhead rail and other transport systems, you can rattle along serenely in your jeepney like a low-flying saucer. The traffic is heavy, snarls are frequent. But no one ever tries to dodge ahead or use a politically incorrect word — they’ve got culture. You could take a swing around old Manila with its colonial buildings, museums and churches — a testimony to its strong Catholic traditions.
But none of the sanctimonious hypocrisy that comes with those who have religion. The Filipinos have chosen to take the joyful bits of religion and sweep the rest under the carpet. Like us, people in Manila are manic movie-goers which explains why there are over 250 cinema theatres in the city. Also, on offer is American fare in these islands, which are the stomping ground of US marines. Pursuit of an American husband is a favoured sport for many Filipino women, and invariably they outwit their prey.
Malate Manila and San Juan are the places to head to if you are looking for old relics and beatific images of saints. Or if you fancy dressing up, visit the pearl markets. Like Aladdin’s Cave, lustrous beads spill out of shops. In contrast to their luminous patina, are the red-blooded corals, another speciality of the Philippines. One can almost smell the briny depths of the South China Seas from where they came. A quick haggle — we Indians are second to none at that — and you could go home with an armful of pearls and corals. Embroidered shirts, a favourite with Filipino politicians, could be yours for anything between $50-100. I got one for the spouse, who flung it away saying he could only wear it on a momentous occasion, like the landing of man on Saturn.
And what would a trip to Manila be without a mention of food? But this was my biggest disappointment here. If sticky rice and dried fried fish does it for you, well you are lucky. Manila is a foodie’s paradise for some, and come evenings, areas around malls and other shopping areas turn into a vast furnace akin to Dante’s Hell as vendors fry, steam, broil and boil an array of seafood and veggies. There are hundreds of restaurants that serve every kind of cuisine conceivable, mostly at reasonable prices.
If you are a designer accessories’ buff, Manila is the place. From shoes to bags to clothes, it is all there. And if you can’t tell your Hermes from your Gucci, then you might want to take home a fake or two at 20-30 quid. For the romantics, a visit to the fabulous promenade along the harbour is a must. Under the twinkling stars over the enchanted islands, you sit lost in thoughts of swashbuckling pirates that must have once roamed these seas, of frigates laden with spices which must have docked on these shores and how lovely it would be to come back to this tranquil land.