A first impression of Manila

The moment I began to appreciate the varied nature of The Philippines was when I was flying above it on my way back from Japan. The islands were plentiful, taking shapes that only a child could invent while learning to draw. Some were barren rocks while others were forested and mountainous. The deep oceans stretched all the way to the horizon where clouds met the mountains sometimes only half way up. I stared in awe at the sheer size of these landmasses bobbing and weaving, above and below the clouds. It was quite beautiful to catch the evening sunbeams dispersed in every which way.

It was at that moment I realized that my limited experience here had given me an impression that was far removed from the peace and tranquility that the other islands held. I was quite accustomed to Manila at this point which sits on the island of Luzon. Luzon is 4th most populated island in the world. However, Manila is the world’s most densely populated city at 42,857 persons per square kilometer.

During the day, Metro Manila swells to 15 million people which is markedly more than Tokyo, Mumbai or even Paris. I believe that the statistics can paint a much better picture than my description of Manila or just how bad the traffic can be. For example, I have spent on average, three hours in traffic for trips that should have only taken 20 minutes ‘on a good day.’ The sense of chaos is palpable.

Jeepneys, tricycles, motorbikes, cars, trucks and vans swerve in and out, barely leaving room for each other to intersect. Jeepney’s are the most interesting and popular modes of transport. They are often painted in radical colors, given catchy names and squeeze as many people as possible into its opened-back entrance. They are hard to miss. Tricycles are my personal favorite. Imagine a motorbike with a side-car attached where two people can ‘comfortably’ squeeze in. For about 20 pesos, I am always happy to catch one on my way back from the grocery. They are fast, cheap and private.

There are many ways to think about any given situation and for this reason I cannot help but compare and contrast the places I have been to this new hub, Manila. At a glance, the economic disparity is poignant. The far-reaching poverty has all but changed my perception on its meaning and that of classism. Before visiting The Philippines, I had never seen so many people living in a state of little to no money or few material possessions. I admit that I had seen poverty on a small scale, a few homeless people and some slums but I suppose the amount of persons I have since witnessed has caused me to feel overwhelmed and question what I really know about poverty. It is no secret that many people here live below the bread line in subpar conditions, such as no running water or proper sanitation, it is quite the norm. I believe this ‘norm’ has been a bit of a culture shock to me.

On another note, another shocking feature of this foreign land is the mannerly nature of the Filipino people. They speak Filipino, which is the official language. However I have since learnt that it is based on Tagalog which is the non-standardized form. This is of the Austronesian language tree which is one of the worlds primary language families. It is also related to Malay and Javanese. The word Tagalog means river dweller. The first time you speak to someone you may be greeted with a gentle tone, expressing words of kindness and an overall sincere disposition. It never gets old, as I find myself very comfortable and at ease living in a society with such great values. They often interchange Tagalog and English while speaking and sometimes add Po, to the sentence to express respect. You will often hear, Hello Po, or Thank you Po when you enter a store or make a purchase.

The word Utopia literally means ‘no place’ or non-existent which lends to the idea that no country is without its ills. The Philippines is no different as the good and the bad are both sides of the same coin. One can get lost looking at the never ending details in Metro Manila as life goes on as it always has, crowded, many families, children playing and people intermingling at every turn. I once asked a taxi driver if there is ever calm in Manila, to which he replied, ‘…only when Manny Pacquiao is fighting, everyone stays indoors to look at him fight.’

I will continue to spend time in Manila for the foreseeable future as my partner and I have somewhat taken root here. Manila has all the perks of big city living yet it has a certain charm and air of casual living that I recognize and cling to in memory of my island heritage.