I wish we had a central park, or a subway with stops everywhere, or red hop-on hop-off buses with tourists who feel the city is beautiful and clean enough to want to see it from the open upper deck. I wish we had a gigantic statue or a soaring tower or a church or a bridge or a clock that people can take selfies in front of to announce to the IG world that they’re here. I wish the late Anthony Bourdain had praised more than our lechon and fast food halo-halo.
But, no. Mega Manila’s claim to fame is that, from its core in the old City of Manila to the bedroom communities in what used to be called neighboring provinces, it is an extremely crowded place. Over 24 million people. Ranked fourth after Tokyo, Jakarta and Delhi in terms of population and the smallest by far of the four urban areas in terms of land area. Polluted, sometimes flooded, Manila is the city that has to be suffered or survived before going out to the mountains or the islands, the beaches and the coral reefs.
I wish visitors could drive through our main thoroughfares and see Philippine history, architecture and art instead of nondescript condo buildings and humungous video screens showing loops of commercials. I wish tourists could walk on the streets and look up at our achievements instead of around themselves with wariness.
More likely, first timers in our formerly fair city will get lost in the maze of our streets. Thank God for Waze. Except that when you lose the LTE signal, Waze stops working. It’s a sad commentary on the performance of the two giant telecommunication companies that many Filipinos feel their only hope is a third telco, essentially saying “Better the devil we don’t know than these two devils we do.” Oh, I wish we had better service.
But then, I’m no tourist. Manila is home now and Manileños, my kin. Like the ratty pajamas that I can never seem to get rid of, this city is comfortable. The baristas know my order, the waiters automatically give me two gravy boats, and the security guards salute and shake my hand as I enter the malls. A city with restaurants that routinely place Knorr seasoning on the table deserves no less than my undying loyalty.
Manila is where I can text “Inuman na!” and count on someone saying “Game!” It’s where the San Miguel is cold and the pulutan, non-stop. Where the conversation over drinks is never small, yet never fully serious. Manila is to me as a certain beerhouse was to a good friend—where, when he arrived after a long day of work, all the bar girls screamed “Sir Eugene!!”
Yes, the city is crowded and easy to hate; but it’s crowded with people who share the same experiences and you come to realize you can’t hate your brothers. The traffic traps enrage you, but you know how to deal with them, don’t you? The motorcycle infestation irritates you, but you can avoid them, too, can’t you? This city knows us, and we know this city. It’s raining cats and dogs, aren’t it? Hahaha.
Even as we shudder at the news of murder and rape and petty politics, we can feel the city vibrate with reports of talent, creativity and strength. For every feeling long-haired blogger, there’s an authentic beauty queen. For every would-be basket-brawler, there’s an emerging gold-medal athlete. For every crass TV host, there are twenty underpaid awesome, amazing theater actors. The trick is to stay long enough to get below the surface of the city and find the countless gems hidden beneath.
We must be crazy to live here. But if I were asked for a tourism slogan, I’d say:
Come look at us freaks. Stay for the love.
[The dazzling musical SIDE SHOW will run at the RCBC Theater until September 23 only.]