The all-smiling, all-singing, rondalla greeted me at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport with a happy ditty of "Ang Pasko ay Sumapit". It was a welcome treat, despite the hot and humid breeze that assaulted me upon first stepping off the plane from Los Angeles. The first thing I did, after checking through customs, was to find the toilet… (that's "rest room" for Pinoys). The friendly Pinoy orderly greeted me with a "Merry Christmas, Sir" and even waited for me to do and finish my business with the loo. He then handed me a clean linen towel, all the while wearing a wide grin and nodding his head as if agreeing to everything I did in front of the mirror. I self-consciously thanked him, pulled my heavy trolley bag full of clothes and knick-knacks from America, and waved on my way out.
Trolleying down the airport's arrival/departure cross street, I could hear Christmas carols playing from large speakers on top of a kiosk on the other side of the fenced sidewalk. It was mid-morning and the sun was intensely shining. Cars, vans, jeepneys and mini-buses started and went every which way of the street. The hard concrete sidewalk shimmered under the heat. Busloads of family members and friends tearfully farewelled and welcomed relatives with hearty laughter and open arms. The heat was bearing down on me like volcanic steam.
The waiting areas were dotted with huge balikbayan boxes and layers upon layers of suitcases and pasalubongs. There were smiles and laughter and cheering and jostling and Pinoy greetings all around. Through a sweaty stance of waiting, right in the middle of the orderly chaos of the airport, I kept muttering to myself: "I am home." The smile on my face must have made me look like a deranged lunatic. But I kept on thinking, with an excited grin on my lips, I am home… I am home… I am home… At last.
BEARING GIFTS I did not bring any pasalubong, that good old Filipino tradition that continues to dog many a Filipino expat. Oh, but I did have some knick-knacks picked out indiscriminately from Sydney, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Vancouver and New York. Key chains, fridge magnets, snowdomes, hotel stationery, pens, shot glasses, stickers, bookmarks, notepads and probably any other souvenir that can fit a scrapbook of holiday memories. Trinkets that were either made in Taiwan or ridiculously pricetagged because they were made in Denmark.
Unlike the crates and boxloads of shirts, Spam, corned beef, Mah-ling egg rolls, baseball caps, shoes, slippers and other paraphernalia capable of overloading a plane full of Pinoys to the point of crashing, I could only afford to bring home one lousy trolley suitcase that managed to sustain its durability throughout Australia and North America, only to burst on the seams upon touching down in Manila.
I did not even buy any Duty-Free product. No whiskey, no two packs of cigarettes, no Baileys, no nothing! Shame on you, you fool! Shame on you, you stupid, frugal beast! But, while waiting patiently for my eldest sister, Riza, to collect me from the airport, I figured I had enough American and Australian dollars to sustain me for this month-long journey home. Trouble was, I figured wrongly. Then again, I thought, they'll be happy just to see me again. I was sure of that. They wouldn't mind not having stateside jerseys or coats. They wouldn't care not having Nike sneakers or UCLA shirts. The "I™NY" key chain would be just perfect for my niece. My sister would be joyfully proud of the five-dollar Hollywood fridge magnet. Bro would jump with glee over the San Francisco cable car toy or the $1.99 pen from Vancouver.
I kept telling myself that it wouldn't matter. They would be just happy to see me. Over the moon. Hysterical. Just to see me again after all those years, perhaps being the greatest gift they could have this holiday season. Then I saw an over-excited couple courageously pushing a giant trolley full of balikbayan boxes. There must have been 10 crate-sized boxes on the trolleys, all stamped "Mabuhay! Pilipinas!". These are all pasalubongs, I thought. Gifts from some god-knows-where they're coming from. Canned goods and shoes and M&Ms and Hersheys and New Jersey caps and SF shirts and brandy and jewellery and Bloomingdale undies and Wal-Mart marshmallows and Fruit of the Loom t-shirts and Hanes trunk briefs and blankets stolen from the plane and shampoos and soaps stolen from some hotel. And what did I have? Just a crammy old suitcase full of crammy old clothes and crammy old photos. I took one look at my trolley, felt my head whirling and my vision blurring, and that's when it happened.
A few moments later, I looked up from the ground where I was being assisted by a couple of do-gooders who looked like they were waiting for some nice big Christmas surprise. Their clammy hands aided me as I stood up. I felt wet on my left pants leg. Looking down, I grimaced at the sticky spew stuck on my jeans. And all I could think of was that I had no pasalubong. At that thought, I felt another spew attack coming… Shame on you, you jerk! Wallow in your spew!
DRIVING MISS SAMPAGUITA And so it was decided that I would stay with Riza and her family, while Dad, who was also visiting from Las Vegas, would cocoon with Mom in her dainty shack somewhere in Antipolo. As she drove me from the airport to her newish house in Pasig, the sights and sounds of the "new" Manila trapped me in a colourful reverie. The airconditioned Honda was a treat on my overheating body. But the farther from the airport Riza drove, the more agitated I became.
Driving around Manila, Riza said, is a lesson in patience. But seeing what goes on around Manila streets while one is driving, I could see that the lesson is not learned. Well, I shall put it this way: Driving in Manila is a lesson in patience. But once you've learned that lesson, you can go on and drive like a maniac and no one would freaking care. Young tots on squeaky, rusty bikes darted in and out of the laneways and onto the path of speeding traffic. Pedestrians lumbered on like zombies, oblivious to the loud beeps and horns from passing jeepneys and cars. Taxis and buses as big as houses criss-crossed in front of us like giant bricks on wheels. It was like one big car chase in an action movie, something one marvels at in many a Robin Padilla movie.
More than 10 years of living in Sydney, where a one-minute delay in traffic would drive even a peep-squeak geek like me to madness, made me feel like a wilting sampaguita garland. The streets were so chaotic and hot that I swear I could see the heat coming out of people's nostrils. Through it all, however, we got home safely.
The ensuing days when Riza would drive me everywhere were not only a lesson in patience and perseverance. They also somehow reminded me how religious I once was. Riza could only gawk at me in wonder whenever I uttered every single patron saint's name every time she swerved at a bus or each time we nearly sideswiped another moron's car bumper. Ultimately, I figured, I was not one to remain a daisy flower throughout those driving ordeals, certainly not when your life flashes right before your eyes every single second on the road.
PASKO NA NAMAN Perhaps it was because it was Christmas that I found the malls bursting with patrons and the streets swelling with vehicles. Every major thoroughfare was dotted with fairy lights and faux poinsettia decorations. Ortigas Avenue, EDSA and Ayala Avenue were literally dripping with candy canes and colourful lollies. Roxas Boulevard was not the same dirty, dark, unsafe and unsanitary place that I once knew. It was overwhelming to see how Bay Walk suddenly emerged from the murky shores of Manila Bay and crept its way into the hearts of locals and tourists alike. Thanks, Mr Mayor! Then there's Metro Walk and the other non-stop all-night venues for denizens who could not get enough of the festival atmosphere. Then there's Gateway in Cubao where the giant smiling face of Kris Aquino greeted me unashamedly. It's endless! And I didn't even have the chance to go to the new Libis.
Gone were the parols of the old variety, made of bamboo or soft wood sticks, crepe or coloured paper and cellophane. The parols were bigger, brighter, bolder and definitely louder, made of flashing multi-coloured capiz shells with elaborate patterns and jewel-like borloloys. Some even came with built-in MP3 players capable of blasting out "Jingle Bells" and "White Christmas" on cue. Could this be the new techno-parol?
As always, the malls were chockersful of people. And as if they could not get any bigger, some institutional malls such as SM Megamall, Robinson's Galleria, Greenbelt, Glorietta, Greenhills Shopping Centre and Shangri-La Plaza were now even more huge than before. Five years ago when I last visited, walking through SM Megamall felt like traipsing through a small village. Now, a leisurely stroll through it felt like one was going to Singapore with a stop-over at Kuala Lumpur. I mean, really, if you want something big like that, why not just build an SM MegaCity? Better yet, convert the whole of Cavite into one giant SM mall…. Crazy!
One thing that's good about these developments was the way Greenbelt was finally fully-developed. When I last visited Tavern on the Square, the open park area where the chapel still stands in the middle of the grounds was surrounded by talahib. Now, a sprinkling of highrises dot the surrounds, and one could get lost through its elaborate walkways and airconditioned shops. Ah, all these huge malls, so many places to go, so little time to spare, and so sore the feet had become. No wonder Manila now has a foot fetish.
FOOTLOOSE ALL OVER What astounded me more than anything else about Manila's commercial landscape was the proliferation of health and fitness salons, and its sometimes ridiculous fascination with feet. Never did I ever imagine that one day Manila would develop a unique, and indeed lucrative, fetish for one's feet. The city is littered with foot spas!
I guessed it was only logical because the better part of a Manila resident's daily life is often spent crossing half a kilometer just to go to the other side of the road. This is not to mention the large walkways and bridges across Aurora Boulevard, Ayala Avenue and EDSA one had to cross to get to the nearest bus stop. And then you have the city-wide megamalls to stroll around in. And I thought it was because everyone loved to walk in their tsinelas or bakyas.
In my case, it was weeks and weeks of walking in the hard concrete roads of LA, trudging up the hilly circuits of San Francisco and freezing my toes cold-close-to-gangrene in the avenues of Vancouver and New York, that damaged my precious walk-on digits. This, even before I reached Manila; and so it was that by the time I was walking around the city streets to enjoy the vibrant sights and sounds and people, my varicose veins had finally invaded my feet. My sister's first advice: have a blast at a foot spa.
Riza and my other sister, Chiqui, even offered me some gift vouchers to use at one of the most sophisticated foot spas around, where one can soak one's tired and inflamed feet for an hour's worth of delightful jet-powered water-propelled massaging forces that were guaranteed to rejuvenate your trotters, while you sip at a glass of bubbly or iced lemon tea. Come on! It's just a foot spa, for heaven's sake!
Yes, it was just a foot spa. The thought lingered long enough in my head to make me decline the offer, no matter how refreshing it sounded. It was too late before I realised my big mistake. Arriving back in Sydney a few weeks later, the soles of my feet looked and felt like the hard bark of coconut trees.
WHAT A LOAD Five years ago, on my last visit, I marvelled at the fact that almost everyone in Manila possessed a mobile or cellular phone. Taxi drivers, jeepney masons, policemen, even cigarette vendors had cell phones. Now, the boom was astounding. Every single technological feature that came out in the last couple of months had been adopted by every citizen I met on the streets, on the bangketas, at the market, inside the bus, in the men's room.
My niece, Christine, showed me every single outlet for a cell phone accessory that I needed, and for those that I had no need for. Texting like mad seems to have become the normal pastime for many a Manileno. All these crazy text messaging must be bad, I thought. Ten or so years from now, an epidemic of repetitive strain injury or arthritis will have struck this generation of texters.
I tried text messaging Christine one day but got no reply, only to be told by her point-blank: "Wala na akong load, eh?" What the hell was that about?, I thought. Surely she's not talking about loading a gun? It seemed to me that Manilenos and all of the Philippines regard their cell phones as a weapon that they could load with bullets like a gun. I guessed it was practical to "load" some credits onto their phone, especially if every single phone card cost only P50. Now where else in the world does this phenomenon occur but in the Philippines? And Manila is at the center of it all. No wonder that recent surveys revealed that it is the text message capital of the world. But if they don't settle and calm down a bit, I thought, it would also be the arthritis capital of the world. Don't say I didn't warn anyone.
THE TROUBLE WITH HELLO IS... Three weeks or so of both blissful family gatherings and painful, guilt-ridden familial revelations alike, I was preparing to go back to Australia when I first realised that I wanted to give Manila another try. Weeks of re-immersing myself in the varied culture of the "new" Manila and its rising pseudo-elite and ultra-chic classes, it was an epiphany of sorts that enabled me to appreciate the city's unique heritage and richness. Beyond its malls and traffic, despite my misfortunes with the foot spa, in spite of all the brouhaha of coup rumors and government destabilisation attempts, I re-discovered Manila in all its fusion of the old and the new. The old majestic walls of Intramuros were still there, watching over the metropolis as it did during the Spanish era. My old haunts in Paco, Malate and Ermita still survived, encircling the narrow passages around my alma mater, the University of the Philippines Manila.
I still enjoyed the Metro Manila Film Festival, despite its shabby cinematic offerings. My favourite bookseller National Book Store at Shangri-La remained reliable, especially with new versions of Nick Joaquin novels and revised editions of Anvil books. The markets where I tremendously enjoyed shopping for suman, bibingka, lumpia, bukayo, okoy, mani, kornik and Halls eucalyptus candies were still standing…Manila was still the ever-resilient city of man I had known from when I was but a kid 10 summers' old. One only need to look at the tired and weary, but seemingly content and still-happy, faces that rush by and greet you on your way to the market, to the mall, the church or the park. It was hard to say goodbye, which was always the trouble with imparting a sweet hello. Back now in Sydney, my post-holiday blues kicked in and left a big hole in my gut. Three months on, I am still in a Manila state of mind, thinking it is the way that the city has touched me again after all these years of being a jaded expat. It has re-imbibed itself in me a new sense of belonging, something that I have never felt after all these years of living in another city. It is for this reason that I lie awake at night thinking of things I would do the next time I am back in Manila. Thinking of what other pleasures I will find next time. Thinking how I could save enough money just to go back again. Thinking plainly, but fondly and especially, of Manila.
It is true what the song says: "There's no place like Manila." And soon enough, I'll be coming home again. I'll be home. Soon enough. Soon.