Museum- and night-prowling are spectator sports I discovered in Manila.
As a small-town person with small-pond predilections, I find the capital overwhelming.
To understand a new place, I usually walk around to wait which pinches first: the calluses of my feet or the preconceived notions in my mind.
But this sprawling, brawling place demands a marshalling of resources. When finding my way out of the subdivision takes a good part of an hour, I resolve to break down this city into simpler units.
What can induce a Filipino to stroll in this country?
Malls and food.
Someone with pitifully poor resources—no sense of direction, Filipino so thick sieving the natural Cebuano results in an odd patois that sounds more like English than the even more alien Filipino—is imagined to be of less danger to herself when deposited at any of the city’s myriad malls.
Planning a reunion with old friends? Malls are the landmarks and arteries of convergence that the plazas were of old.
Except that in Manila, many malls are not merely “tambayan (hang-out)” but mini-cities.
I realized this one afternoon when I entered one mall as a storm was gaining strength, emerging hours later in an adjoining mall whose expensively aged promenade was spotless and dry as a parched desert of glass and chrome.
It is not only not strange to find a rainforest juxtaposed with an English countryside and a Mediterranean courtyard, all courtesy of a sleight of urban planning. Some malls make me wonder if selling is just about moving goods and services.
Once, sitting on a bench I first mistook as sculpture, I contemplated a whole wall of glass, the storefront of a brand I cannot pronounce. The centerpiece of this expensive display of space, glass and silence were three stumps.
The middle one was pale and blotched, with the sheen and solidity of stone though it was indubitably of wood. A small sticker was easy to read because the upside-down figures contained just one primary number and the rest were zeros before a decimal point.
Was this obscenely priced trunk my first sight of ironwood, rare remnant of a native forest species ship- and church-building Spaniards forced Filipinos to fell into extinction?
More than an emporium, a mall can be a museum, affording one a glimpse of the rarefied and extravagant or the plainly unimaginable. To find something one thought no longer existed, and to discover it has a price, is instructive.
While Manila’s malls seemingly leave nothing uncommodified, their evening streets sent me off on a quest for the elusive “BBQ”.
Malls, with their dining cornucopia, are depots for refueling before one jumps into and risks the undercurrents of Manila traffic. Ironically, all that variety palls.
One evening, sleepless and nauseated from hicupping the remnants of another arcade repast, we kept our eyes peeled for the smoke-wreathed figure of the streetside barbecue vendor, a Cebuano institution, wizards in not just converting cheap cuts or throwaways like intestines, heads and feet into pocket-friendly exotica but also in juggling the myriad tasks of informal enterprise: skewering one’s dinner, roasting, pouring “sawsawan,” slicing open “puso” with half a blade, rinsing dishes, receiving payment, returning change, catching out freeloaders, and—the truly best—preventing nightcrawlers from falling into your food.
Seen: liempo, lechon manok, pork lechon packed in clear containers, neat squares of congealing skin arranged on top in an odd mosaic, an abbreviated version of the whole pigs sprawled near great chopping boards back home.
Not seen: BBQ baboy, BBQ manok, BBQ isda, BBQ nokos, BBQ saging.
The food we grew up with may send us off to a too early meeting with our Maker. But for as long as we strive and barter skies, food provides the crawlspace for shutting one’s eyes and pretending we’re back in our beds.
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* First published in Sun.Star Cebu's May 29, 2011 issue of the "Matamata" Sunday column