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It’s dark out now…and the humid, polluted, overbearing Manila heat has drifted down to an acceptably muggy level. Still, I wouldn’t be caught in a long sleeve shirt or without my shorts. The smells wafting out of the booths and around the corners here seem almost out of place. Instead of the smell of garbage, or vomit…or some other unknown substance that invariably perfumes the streets of the Malate district where I live, there is the sweet smell of popcorn…hot dogs (instead of squid balls – though, I’m sure you can find those here too if you look hard enough) …maybe even cotton candy? And Zagu. Ah, yes. Zagu... This is my first trip to a Filipino amusement park. I never much liked amusement parks…but tonight I am suitably…amused.
As I sit on the bench waiting for my exchange student friends, Sun-Hwa, Makoto and Hye-Sun, to return from the washroom I sip slowly on the extra fat, green straw of my Zagu, drawing up, through the intense ice-milkshake, the delightfully warm tapioca treasures within. Zagu is an idea revolting in appearance and conception but surprisingly pleasing in practice. The clear plastic cup sweats, as I do, in the evening heat – large beads of perspiration gather across the cup’s surface. A zen descends.
I think back to my third or fourth day in Manila, the first day I’d really summoned up the courage to go out in the streets alone. I already felt so conspicuous. It’s a shame I’ll be leaving in only a few days. Had I done enough here? Could I have done more if I hadn’t been so afraid? So culture-shocked? I definitely would have tried Zagu earlier. Zagu…or Sagu…or Yummy Balls or whatever it was called at whichever plywood booth you bought it from, would have made my stay easier.
I hadn’t tried Zagu until a few weeks ago. Why hadn’t I? Oh yeah. I was afraid of it. Like most of my experience in Manila, I was afraid. I was afraid of Yummy Balls, in part, because of something Reodel had told me. Which, now that I think about it, can be generalized to most of my fear of Manila.
Four months ago, when I arrived at the dilapidated Nino Aquino airport after more than twenty-four disorienting hours on planes and in terminals, I met Reodel for the first time outside of customs. Reodel was in charge of the exchange students at De La Salle University. His first words were some quick, wry comment, as was his style, about not knowing who he was looking for because I’d sent in two photos to their office a couple of months ago…one with a beard and one without. God. The number of photos Immigration demanded from me for my student visa…they must have a Leopold McGinnis Warehouse somewhere where they store all my pictures. After this brief introduction he excused himself to the washroom… leaving me waiting…a meek island of white...in an airport lobby bursting at the seams with Filipinos. I learned later that Reodel had been made ill by the Zagu he had drunk earlier. He’d been barfing all day, apparently.
Makoto and the two Koreans return from the washroom. We all have a full pass for 600 pesos and pick out a ride. Makoto likes roller coasters. I don’t, particularly, but this one seems diminutive compared to those at home. It is, at most, three stories high. We hop aboard and strap ourselves in. Sun-Hwa doesn’t like scary rides so she waits outside and watches. The roller coaster buckles and lurches forward and we rattle around the death cage. At most, the ride is pleasant. Not high enough or fast enough to be scary…but the seats rattle and bang into my back. Hye-Sun, afterwards, complains that the seat has hurt her back quite a bit.
We decide to take an easier ride and line up for the very large Ferris wheel. Two beautiful Korean women, a Japanese man and a Canadian get onto a Ferris wheel in the Philippines. It sounds like the beginning to some joke. What a strange world it is, I think as the four of us climb into the carriage, where, of all the possible combinations of chance and probability, events have come together to produce this moment: this odd combination of friends in this spot at this time.
Packed in a carriage built like a football helmet, we are jolted as the ride jerks into its extremely slow, halting and erratic rotation. Uncomfortable groaning moans from the joints and we all look at each other nervously, wondering if this was a good decision for a ‘safer, less scary ride.’
About a quarter of the way up, though, we relax. I’m careful not to sip on my Zagu lest the jolting give me straw wounds. As we rise up over the gate of StarCity an adjacent amusement park suddenly comes into view over the fence, Boom Na Boom. The grounds are practically deserted…although it seems to be open. We all make comments about how we picked the right park to go to! and then fall into silence, watching the spectacle below us, and the harried slapped-together city in the distance, shrink before use. It’s hard to believe I will be going back home on Friday.
At the Nino Aquino airport the public aren’t allowed inside. Everyone waits outside in the sweltering heat, behind a large fence or the concrete outer structure of the building. Entrances are all guarded by security men with rifles at their waists. Reodel and I passed through the ‘safe-zone’ and into the throngs of tan-skinned Filipinos waiting in the small parking lot, dressed for the humid evening heat in nothing but undershirts, shorts and flip-flops. I was the only white person in sight and the only fool in jeans and a jacket. Thousands of miles from home.
Reodel led me through this mess to a van in a very dark parking lot and we got in. “I have to go back into the airport again for a second,” he said. “I forgot something.” This was a lie, I would later figure out. He returned to barf his guts out. I’m not sure why the guards let him back in the airport – probably because he was wearing a barong tagalong (a fancy, traditional, long dress-shirt) and they thought he was a lawyer or something. Status, money and especially dress account for a lot in the Philippines.
But before Reodel went he told me to lock the doors and roll up the window as “the Filipinos see someone who is white like you, alone, and they will think to themselves, ‘He is rich. He has money.’ You could get robbed. You must be careful.” He smiled at imparting to me this generous advice and left. I hadn’t been afraid until that moment – just extremely tired. That moment, my first moment, started the whole thing.
After waiting a tense forever, I was relieved to see Reodel returning and we drove off towards my new residence. On the way there, it seemed as if everyone made their best effort to not drive in an orderly fashion. The white lines on the road were all but ignored. There was honking all around us, strange cars weaving in and out of the so-called lanes, driving up on the curb, occasionally, to get around some obstacle, avoiding people dashing across the middle of the highway.
Reodel imparted more information to me. “You see all these places?” He pointed to several stores along the street. There were a lot of fancy (compared to the typical Manila-grown buildings) North American chain restaurants here – KFC, Wendy’s, Kenny Rodger’s Roasters. And then there were obviously local restaurants, set up in buildings that looked like they were about to fall over, trying to cash in on some brand name American restaurant by using names like Burger Queen, for example. Reodel pointed to a row of shoe repair shops. Three right in a row. “You see the Filipino mind? A man sees a spot and says, ‘There is no shoe shop here. I will open a shoe shop. ’ It is successful. So, another guy, he sees this and says, ‘I want to open a shop. Well, that shop is doing well. It must be a good place. I will open a shoe shop.’ Then another guy, he sees these two shoe-shops and wonders, ‘Why should they be making all the money when there is obviously so much shoe business here?’ So he too opens a shoe shop…and so they have to fight each other for a small business while there are not shoe shops other places. You see the Filipino mind? Sometimes Filipinos are not smart.” The three shoe shops are the least bizarre thing I have seen since arriving…but this curiously imperialistic analysis is interesting and potentially useful, so I tuck it away into the folds of my memory.
The next day one of my Japanese roommates, Dai, took me on a huge walking tour through Malate to get me acquainted – malls (which seemed somehow much more dirty and tawdry than any in Canada…but I couldn’t put my finger on why), bank machines (which I could never get to work with my card), supermarkets (full of foreign foods I didn’t know how to cook and brand names I wasn’t sure I could trust)...
Going into the malls we were frisked by security guards with guns. At banks they carried rifles. Since you often couldn’t walk on the sidewalk because it had fallen apart, didn’t exist, or some enterprising food or cigarette stand owner had built their shack right out onto the street, we dodged and weaved down the side of the highways, throwing our weight around with the cars and Jeepneys. Finally we found an exchange booth to change my money.
Dai nodded as the man finished counting out my pesos. “Yes. It looks good,” Dai raised his eyebrows and continued nodding enthusiastically as he always did. He went on to explain that these exchange places take advantage of foreigners…but that the exchange had been proper here. I was glad to have Dai with me. I didn’t know what I was doing.
Later we rode a Jeepney - an elongated U.S. World War II jeep that you crawl into the back of and operates like an incredibly frequent and insane bus – to Manila Bay and took a long walk down just off Roxas Blvd. Large cockroach-like bugs scattered as we walked the ocean path. People stare at us as we tread the battered walkway, our noses fish-hooked by the smell of garbage and a potpourri of unidentifiable, unpleasant scents. I didn’t feel safe walking in the middle of a highway, or alone in the middle of a ‘beach’…but Dai didn’t seem to think anything of it. The bay was a thick black with oil and other garbage. I learned later that those people staring at us on the beach lived there.
The next day I enter De LaSalle University for the first time. There is a fence around the entirety of the small campus, and, again, we have to pass through a security checkpoint with a guard. Inside, De LaSalle is a testament to Spanish architecture, filled with young and wealthy Filipino students. In the Academic Linkages office, when Reodel learns that we walked down along the bay, he looks worried and tells us that we shouldn’t go there without the exchange personnel. “Foreigners are very common targets and there are lots of muggers in Malate (our section of Manila). White people and Japanese, especially, are targeted”, he says.
“Chigusa was mugged on the corner of Estrada and Taft,” he informs me. This intersection is a mere block from our apartment. Chigusa was the only female Japanese exchange student. She had a rich family back in Japan and dressed like it. And, she being a woman, Reodel never passed up a chance to lightly ridicule her. Her English wasn’t so good so she just smiled and nodded a lot. She never really tried to learn it, though. I had a feeling, behind all the designer labels and her seeming selfishness that Chigusa was a pretty smart woman. But I never knew for sure…because she could be really lazy. The other Japanese felt ashamed of her attitude and behaviour and often confided this to me.
After hearing this news of Chigusa’s mugging I was desperate to go home. This place was hell. It was obviously very dangerous for foreigners. And being here three days I don’t think I had even seen another white person. Not that I wanted to…but it certainly made me feel conspicuous. I was stared at by everyone and it never lifted. I didn’t want to have to be afraid of being robbed every time I stepped out of the safety of my apartment or De La Salle University. The guards with guns at every store, and broken glass cemented onto the high walls surrounding properties made me feel anxious, not safe. How were Dai and Makoto so brave? How did they get by with such ease and confidence? How was I going to survive another four months here?
I’ll tell you how I spent it. I spent a lot of it in the safety of the campus, – in computer rooms emailing home - and, the nights, in our small, dingy, fourth floor apartment…drinking only from bottles because, in Manila, even water – which they use to make the ice for Zagu – is dangerous… I spent most of my exchange staring out through the window at this world that I still couldn’t believe existed and escaping into the TV set, full of odd commercials. I had spent almost all my money on the $400 visa and my airplane ticket before coming out here. I couldn’t afford to eat out…even here where the peso fell every day with a war against Islam in the south and the increasing presidential scandals…so I cooked everything at home - rice and hot dogs (that turned the pot of water florescent pink) with banana ketchup, generally - and lost a lot of weight. Like… a lot.
I spent so much time alone in that filthy apartment. The sounds of incessant car horns and people shouting flowing through the open window were as hot, smelly and ever present as the muggy, moist air that clung in the streets. I was alone, bored, poor and counting the days and hours until I left while my roommates were fearlessly living the exchange student dream. Or, at least, making friends, being adventurous and spending their nights out taking English lessons from a homosexual tutor who greatly favoured his male students at the expense of his female ones. When I felt brave I rode a Jeepney alone to Robinson Plaza, the rich tourist mall, to watch American movies. 50 pesos lang.
About three months into my trip, the fear that I might leave this place without pushing myself, testing myself or learning anything (which was my reason for coming to Manila instead of Europe or Australia or some other clichéd college tour of duty) began to outweigh my fear of living here. And one night, sitting in the solitary heat of our apartment, between waiting for the Japanese to come home and watching commercials for Red Bull and Barangay Ginebra the balance tipped. Around nine o’clock that evening, when it was dark, I made a decision, girded my metaphorical loins and left the apartment, setting off for a long walk, in a direction I had never been - a probably very unsafe direction. I walked past the smell of puke at the corner…away from the constant collection of Jeepneys and pedicabs and pedestrians by our complex. Alone, I walked down the unusually empty streets, past the particle board walls and corrugated tin roofs of the squatter huts, past the richer houses with large cement walls and glass shards inserted on top of them to prevent people from climbing over. I walked past Filipinos hanging out in the streets, gazing at me and wondering what I was doing there. I did my best to look as though I belonged there…in this dilapidated street…like I knew what I was doing and was comfortable doing it. I walked several blocks in one direction. Went down a few blocks and walked back. It was scary.
But I didn’t get mugged. All I got was stares…and by now I was used to that…the constant staring, the admiring or curious gazes. Back in the comfort of our shaggy and dirty apartment I, for the first time in months, felt great. I felt powerful. I felt strong. I didn’t feel like a meek mole, poking his head out of the ground and scurrying madly to safety whenever he did venture out. I felt, however small, like a success. I hadn’t felt this good since I had left Canada.
The next day I stopped at the corner, the same one Chigusa got mugged at, and picked up a Zagu from the new shop that had opened up. I had wanted to try Zagu for several weeks…but was held back by Reodel’s admonitions of extreme sickness…and some general fear of trying new things that often seemed to haunt me. Paying for my first Zagu, Cookies and Cream flavour, I took a sip and looked down at it, beads of sweat forming on the outside. Like my adventure the night before, it was a great success.
We are coming down the other side of the Ferris wheel now. As we descend, the cage swinging slightly to and fro, I can see less of the city and turn back to the people and machines below. I like this Philippine amusement park better than anything they’ve got in Canada. Though the rides aren’t as big or as intact or hi-tech as anything we’ve got, they’re scarier. Because you don’t know if it is going to hold together.
I finish off tonight’s Zagu, again wishing I’d started drinking them earlier, but proud I’ve tried it before going home. I’m going to miss it here, the friendly people, the breathtaking landscape outside of Manila, riding on the back of a Jeepney, the fiery smog-induced sunset by the bay, playing cat and mouse with traffic…the pleasant and the unpleasant, the differences…the hot, yummy tapioca gems suspended and hidden in my ice Zagu.