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food / travel

Trying To Make Sense Of Manila – In All Its Joy And Deprivation

A “walking euro” describes his travels through Manila, the dizzying capital city of the Philippines. Chaotic, corrupt and largely Catholic, the city is also bursting with energy.

A slum kid in Manila (Roberto Verzo)
A slum kid in Manila (Roberto Verzo)
Til Biermann

MANILA -- At the Ring Bar in Manila they have alternating wrestling matches – sometimes dwarves, sometimes prostitutes. A cup of coffee at Starbucks costs as much as a Filipino merchant sailor earns in one and a half days. Just a few kilometers away, slum kids swim in stinking water so disgustingly dirty that there are large dead fish floating in it.

Slum buildings, often just a bunch of boards and corrugated iron up to three stories high, are piled one on top of the other against a backdrop of 40-story high-rises shooting out of the ground. Welcome to Manila, capital city of the Philippines.

Filipinos feel strong ties to the United States. They love basketball, and speak American English. To many, flipping burgers at McDonalds really is – as a recruitment video for the fast food chain claims -- "Your chance to become world famous!"

Filipinos, who informally call their own people Pinoy, are a mix of indigenous tribes and Chinese with some Colonial-period Spaniards thrown in – hence the Spanish surnames and the country's name (after Spanish King Philip II).

The main language in the 20-million-strong Manila metropolitan area is Tagalog, distantly reminiscent of indigenous languages and mixed with American phrases. The country's tiny upper class speaks American English outright.

Just a "glimmer of hostility"

The disparities between rich and poor are extreme in this country. Here, a German on social benefits, living in a one-room apartment in a lower-class area of Berlin, would be considered middle class. By comparison: A typical – and hard-working – male resident of Manila lives with his pregnant girlfriend and 14 other people in a room measuring 22 square meters (237 square feet) and earns the equivalent of 180 euros a month.

Filipinos are very friendly, even if occasionally a glimmer of hostility can be seen in their eyes when they spot a "walking euro" – a foreign European visitor – in the street. But what stands out is how many faces radiate happiness, even those of the slum children who come out to meet the river ferry as it glides towards land.

Astonishing too are the industrious fishermen who – in waters with dead fish floating in them – still use tiny nets and boats to try and eke some food from the river.

The crass disparity between rich and poor could be compared to the feudal era in Europe: social class and background play a major role, and jobs are landed more on the basis of connections than on merit.

Corruption is rampant. Peter, a German engineer living in Manila, "contributes' 100 euros a year to the city police's Christmas festivities. In return he gets a business card signed personally by the chief. Once, Peter had too much to drink, ran a red light and was stopped by a police patrol – but when he presented the signed business card with his driver's license, the police officers actually accompanied him past the next light. Said one officer on seeing the card: "Aah, I see. You may drive on, Sir!" "But the red light?..." Officer: "No, no, all is in order. Drive on, Sir!"

Hardly a tourist in sight

Filipinos are 85% Catholic, and every second channel is "Bible TV." There are some Muslims in the southern part of the archipelago -- the country's total population is 90 million – but they are isolated. They have been conducting a bitter fight for independence so they can create a separate fundamentalist state. That Catholic governors are unfailingly "voted" into office in districts exclusively inhabited by Muslims speaks volumes about the state of democracy in the country.

A few years ago, a Filipino with a large following came home from exile -- despite warnings not to -- with the intention of running for president. He didn't even make it past Manila airport, where he was shot by his own security guards.

One thing that's striking in Manila is how few foreign tourists one sees – at most a couple of Koreans, or maybe a 50-something white guy with a young Filipina on his arm. The Chinese are part of local society and have been for a long time: they are very active in commerce, as they are in many other Southeast Asian countries.

An extremely important role is played by the 10 million Filipinos who work abroad, either in the merchant marine, or as caregivers for old people and farm hands in Arab countries and Israel. They bring in money for their families, and currencies urgently needed by the government. The lower ranks of merchant marines the world over are almost exclusively filled with Filipinos. That came as a surprise to engineer Peter as well, who is building a 10-story office structure for a German company into which a retirement home for sailors is to be integrated.

Ringside haggling

An hour away by plane – a Boeing flight run by the black-listed Zest Air company – is Bohol Island. Here, rum costs one euro per liter and you can get a whole grilled chicken with rice and pork-belly for 1.50 euros. Powerful scooters that do up to 80 km (50 mi) an hour can be rented for 5 euros a day and get you out to the bamboo cock fighting rings that are like being transplanted onto the set of a "Mad Max" movie.

Birds that don't make it through a fight are either plucked right there for eating, or – if there's enough left to salvage for another fight – patched up by "doctors' using large needles. But that's not often the case, thanks to the sharp, 8-cm-long knives mounted on the fighting birds' claws.

Before they're put in the ring at the age of around one and a half years, they have a nice life. Owners spoil them, and it's said that if a fire broke out they would be saved first, family second.

There are cock fights in Manila too. Winning birds are auctioned at starting prices equivalent to 18,000 euros and rated like Formula One race cars.

The biggest attraction, however, may be the haggling over how much to bet and chances of winning that takes place at a ring before a fight. To the uninitiated, the broad vocabulary of hand gestures and code words is unintelligible but highly entertaining. So is the advertising for products that supposedly improve a bid's performance, such as anti-stress pills.

To sum up: the overall impression one leaves Manila with is one of deprivation buzzing with life and joy. If it hasn't occurred to the visitor well before, by the time the plane lands back home, the truism will have sunk in: Happiness doesn't necessarily depend on money.

Read the original article in German

Photo - Roberto Verzo

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