New cities terrify me, especially ones I visit alone. Bogeymen are waiting to get me. The fear may come from my rabbit warren upbringing, or from a claustrophobia brought on by the lack of air and natural light. Whichever, in my mind, dangers lurk on every street corner.
6 years ago, in a bid to overcome my fear of Tokyo, I decided to walk it. In some ways, the plan worked. Being beneath the skyscrapers was not so scary anymore, just boring and exhausting. Marching along pavements was all I did.
To counter boredom and to conquer Manila, I planned a mix of sites and a mix of transport. I chose four places: Intramuros – the historic area; Chinatown – the erm…….Chinese area; Quezon – a student hangout, so good bakery potential; and Makati – the business district, a chance to see salarymen in flip-flops.
My self-guided tour started outside the clean, friendly Where2Next hostel in Malate. For 8 pesos, a silver jeepney people-carrier limped me through the traffic to the edge of Intramuros. Intramuros means within walls, it is a mini city, built by the Spanish in the 16th century on the grounds of an old Muslim fort. Damaged by frequent earthquakes and typhoons, the WW2 battle between defending Japanese and reconquering Americans just about finished it off.
Many of the historic buildings in Intramuros have been rebuilt. Now tourists, touts and university students wander inside its black brick walls. Outside the closed concrete cathedral, touts, inexplicably dressed in lemon and lime lumberjack shirts, hassled me for a guided tour of the ruins. Taking a taxi drivers advice, I told them in Tagalog: “sori po“, it worked better than the more direct “No, thank you,” and the downright offensive “Bugger off.”
The young students gave the streets some colour and rawness. Flip-flopping outside one college, I even got nanpa-ed, chatted up by a curious student in a white dress. Well, I think she was chatting me up, she did not ask me: “Do you come here often?” Whatever the case the flirtation soon ended, onlookers` excited shouts of “boyfriend” transformed her friendly countenance into one of fear and panicked embarrassment. She ran off.
After a canteen lunch of tasty bangus langanisa, milkfish sausages, I flip-flopped over the Pasig river to the crowded, windy streets of Chinatown. Jewellery, tea and medicine displays filled open-fronted shops, but nobody seemed interested in looking at them, least of all me. In fact, I forgot why I had wanted to go to Chinatown. It did not seem to matter. The journey was better than the destination.
Sidestepping foot traffic on the busy pavement, I stopped at a bakery for coffee and 2 sweet buns – all for just 20 pesos. A fat kid in a white singlet was sitting behind the counter reading out loud from an English picture book. His Mum leant over him to correct his pronunciation. He probably gets an Eccles cake for every good grade. Lucky sod.
A Light Rail ride, elevated on concrete stilts, took me over to Quezon in the suburbs. Through the train window I had panoramic views of the corugated city – kids walking along train tracks, buildings half-demolished or half-built and washing lines loaded with garish t-shirts.
Again the journey beat the destination: the Quezon station district was bleak and disorienting, and a brief search failed to unearth anything even approaching a Chelsea bun.
With darkness approaching, I rushed to catch a train to the business district in Makati. I need not have bothered. Makati was dull and oppressive, like west Shinjuku – the ground darkened with the menacing shadows of skyscrapers and not a flip-flop to be seen.
I escaped Makati by bus. A manic conductor enlivened the ride, furiously busy, he raced up and down the aisle letting passengers on and off, touting tickets to passers-by, and shouting out commands to the driver. The ride was fun but I had to get off – it was going the wrong way.
The PNR Commuter Express line – it looked the perfect way to finish the day and return to my hostel in Malate. At 10 pesos, a journey is 10 times cheaper than London or Tokyo. To compensate for this, trains are filled with 10 times as many passengers.
Unlike in Tokyo, no officials are around to organise the ensuing chaos; the chaos seems quite happy organising itself. There were no queuing lines, and no waiting for passengers to get out before you try to get in. The instant the doors slid open, the scrum drives forward, we were like sweaty sardines trying to squeeze into a tin.
At least the crush was good-humoured. One bloke hanging out the door, barely in the carriage himself, persuaded a few lingering passengers on the platform to pile in; he then asked a couple of men to move so the two women in the carriage could get a seat.
The ride was a memorable experience, but I was pleased to get off, even if it was at an unfamiliar spot. It is better to arrive lost than stay squashed in a sardine tin. A taxi took me back to Malate. Compared to the cramped PNR ride, the taxi`s spacious back seat made me feel like an over-indulged returning conqueror – returning to the wrong town.