Wearing thick socks and heavy leather shoes, I flew away from a freezing Tokyo to the Philippine capital Manila, a city similar to Tokyo in size, traumatic recent history and longitude; the latitude however – I always get those two confused – is 20 degrees different. So was the ground temperature. Arriving at the airport in the early evening, I soon realised I needed to shed clothing quickly.
A taxi took me into the city. With a squint to obscure the squalor, night-time Manila felt like Tokyo in August: pant-penetrating humidity, familiar conbini chains, Japanese script on neon signs and towering skyscrapers twinkling in the distance.
The diners looked different: less fish and more fried chicken; one brazen sign advertised Max`s Restaurant – The House That Fried Chicken Built.
I could not see anybody wearing shoes. Tokyo is a city of shoes, shiny spanking new ones, all fit for brisk, orderly marching. Manila it seems, is a city of flip-flops, gaudy grubby ones, all suitable for err….flip-flopping.
My first night was spent in Malate, an old district favoured by tourists. I stayed in Friendly`s Guesthouse. Of the 14 men with bunks in my dormitory, all but one fool – me – was wearing flip-flops. I felt an urgent need to get my feet orientated.
Wandering outside, I soon spotted reasons for Malate`s popularity: Go Go Bars, many with Japanese names – AKB48, Harajuku, Okii-ni – dotted the surrounding streets. I don`t really much about Go Go Bars (even if I did, I wouldn`t tell you) but I was generously invited into a few of them. I refused. I was looking for a flip-flop joint.
Beggars, bar touts and tricycle taxi drivers hawked the pavements, the road was hogged by both taxis and jeepneys – garishly-decorated chrome people carriers. Malate`s strange sights, smells and humidity needed time to take in.
I found sanctuary in Fruit Tea Mix, a brightly-lit, spick-and-span drinks bar with air-conditioning and orange plastic seats.
The staff greeted me with a smile and a “Hello, sir”. The waitress, tall and slim, her dark frizzy hair pulled back into a bun, had radiant, pie-crust coloured skin. She was beautiful. When she brought my kiwi juice over, I pointed at her feet and asked:
“Do you know where I can buy those?”
“Socks?!” she replied, only slightly knocked off-balance.
“No no,” I stretched my hand to point directly at her pink-strapped white flip-flops.
And I have always said flip-flops was a stupid word.
Unfortunately her recommended spot for buying these so-called slippers, San Andres market, was closed.
Reluctantly my heavy shoes took me back towards the guesthouse. I did not feel comfortable. Amongst the cafes, izakayas and Korean barbecue joints of Malate festers an element of sin: skimpily-dressed Filipino girls flirting with escapees from the nursing homes of Europe and North America, illicit meetings of uneven bank accounts.
A single man wandering the streets at night is an easy target for the bar touts, especially one so obviously foreign and clueless as I was. Emerging from behind a taxi, a shifty looking man approached me:
“Do you want a lady?”
“No, I don`t. What I really want is a pair of, oh forget it.”
I had to wait until the next morning until my feet found comfort. Once in flip-flops, you never want to go back to shoes. But all holidays must come to an end.
Late last night, in a simple, pathetic ceremony, on an empty platform in Tokyo station, I replaced my grubbied Filipino slippers for my heavy marching shoes.