Well, here (as at home) I don’t seem to be able to sleep past 4am.
Yesterday, we spent time with the women of the Protacio family, old friends and benefactors of my mother from her early days in Manila. The family runs, among other things, a hospital. Which happens to be next door to a hotel they also run. “Come stay at Nichols Hotel—Free Blood Pressure check!”
These gals are forces of nature. Baby Socorro, Baby Carmencita and Mia are three dynamic Manila women who’ve got it going on in spades. We spent the afternoon tooling around Manila together… and eating.
Filipinos love to eat! Our afternoon started with a magnificent Chinese lunch of dim sum, braised lettuce and pork pork pork shrimp shrimp shrimp. Americans think they know Chinese food. Bay Area folk especially, since we’re at the “Gateway to the East.” No. This was some of the best Chinese food I’ve ever had outside China. And it was “just lunch.” Magnificent. As Baby Socorro says, “Chinese food in America is a whole table of so many dishes, so many colors—One Flavor Only!”
Peter and I also indulged a little. We’ve decided that our No Drinking rule applies only in the Continental United States. (Considering that this is the third time in twenty years that we’ve been abroad, that seems safe!) So it was San Miguel Superdry beer with lunch, at Mia’s suggestion. I don’t drink beer. But, like Piper Laurie in Carrie, I have to sweatily admit that I liked it.
The evening ended with a “snack” of Filipino food. The snack consisted of platesful of pancit palabok (noodles), lumpia (spring rolls with fresh hearts of palm), dinuguan (blood stew), and sweets—bibingka cakes with salted eggs and cheese, glutinous rice in piles of sesame and fresh coconut. Fabulous stuff. Good lord, these ladies know how to entertain. These are women who can casually and unaffectedly drop things like, “Imelda loved my puto bumbong. She would ask and ask where I got it, but I wouldn’t tell her. It was my trump card!”
In between meals, we had a car tour of Manila. And we sang show tunes. Broadway babies. (One of my strongest memories of my last trip to Manila—I was six—is singing showtunes with the irrepressible Baby Socorro.)
Manila. A beautiful city, and an absolutely heartbreaking one. We saw four more supermalls today (some of them lit beautifully by our hostesses’ lighting company), including the Mall of Asia, which is simply staggering in scale. It’s a small city on the waterfront. Jose Rizal park, with its eternally-guarded bronze statue of the national hero, facing bronzes of the national animal: the burden-laden carabao, or water buffalo. So many buildings of absolutely monumental stature built during the Marcos dictatorship. And Dewey boulevard, running along Manila Bay, which, yes, has a simply bewitching sunset. There’s an almost terrible beauty to all of this. And it’s an old city rebuilding itself on a grand scale. Construction everywhere.
And traffic. The infamous Manila traffic. Cars and jeepneys careening by in every direction. Or simply stopped. For hours at a time. When traffic stops for so long that vendors laconically sell their wares between lanes (barrowsful of roasted peanuts, sweets… feather dusters), it’s traffic.
And poverty. It’s a famous saying that “In America, poverty is a problem. In India, it’s a fact.” That holds true here. Shanty towns along the river. Long stretches of houses built from cinderblocks and tin. Poverty on a scale that is just simply beyond our ken. I don’t really have words for it right now. Peter and I just looked at one another. Speechless.
But the city—even the poorest parts—is absolutely decked out for Christmas. Coconut palms festooned with explosions of lights. Trees dripping with twinkling, electric Spanish Moss. And everywhere, shining parols, lit Christmas stars made from bamboo and paper. Manila is just waiting to celebrate.