The buildings rose up around me, reaching high into the sky, the glass windows clean and reflecting the morning sun. From my perch in a street-side café, I could see the four-door cars sitting in stand-still traffic. Beyond that were the name-brand storefronts, their patrons decked out in suits and skirts, their hair groomed and cleaned and combed. Over on the other side of the street, there were people sitting on benches, looking down at their cell phones. As I sat there sipping my coffee, watching it all go by, one thing became clear: I was in the wrong part of town.
Known as Makati, it is the hub of white-collar business and luxury living in Metro Manila, with office buildings, condos, and western hotel chains dominating its skyline. It might be the newest part of the city, but it’s the least representative of the majority of its inhabitants. I knew I had to do something – anything – to get myself back on track, back into the world and the culture of the everyday people who live in the shadow of these skyscrapers.
Out of the corner of my eye, past the beer-drinking white men, I could see a young Filipino man, about my age, stuffing cigarettes into an overflowing ashtray. He was sitting next to a well-tanned, middle-aged European man, and they were both huddled over a laptop. The pair seemed out of place in the foreigner-dominated café, dressed casually with flip flops in a sea of shined shoes. If I was going to take anyone’s advice around here about what to see and do, these two were my best hope of local intel.
I approached the table. The European introduced himself as Han, and the Filipino as Taz. When I told them I was in Manila for a conference, and that thus far I had been quarantined to this area of town, they were both taking drags from their cigarettes. Over their shoulders I could see an Excel spreadsheet on the laptop. I told them I would really love some advice about where to find true local flavor, that I’d had enough of white-collar, latte-driven Manila.
Han smiled. He first came to the Philippines a decade ago, but unlike many expats, who forgo their potential by becoming regulars at seedy bars, he took an interest in the real Manila. Not the sleazy bars of Bergos Street or the glitz and glam of modern Makati, but the day-to-day life of millions of everyday Filipinos, like Taz, who are living at or below the poverty line in one of the city’s many barangays. That day at the café, Han and Taz were meeting to put together a plan for a new type of day tour, one that skipped all the main attractions and went straight into daily life. For me, someone honestly just looking for a quick suggestion, stumbling upon Hans and Taz was like striking oil with a shovel when all I wanted to do was plant a tree. Could they show me what they planned to show others on their tour?
Taz took another drag from his cigarette. He looked over at Han, who nodded. “Okay,” he said, “Today you see the real Manila.”
“You’ll see all kinds of pretty beaches and jungles in the tourist ads,” Han said as we walked, “But you won’t find even a glimpse of everyday life in those photos. Some people come [to the Philippines] and completely bypass Manila. They never even leave the beach. We want to change that.”
Despite typically being referred to under the blanket term of “Manila,” Metro Manila is comprised of sixteen smaller cities – one of which is called Manila, just to make things confusing – and then broken down even further into barangays, or small, government-recognized neighborhoods. Taz, for example, lives in Metro Manila, in the city of Taguig, in the Santa Ana Barangay. Though small unofficial barrios have existed in Metro Manila since the days of Spanish occupation, the term barangay took over in 1974 when then President Ferdinand Marcos made them fully functional communities with elected officials. At the time, Marcos said it was to “broaden the base of citizen participation” in government, but most scholars then and now agree that it was done to gain more control for himself as a future dictator (for those interested, you can read more on that history here).
Today, each barangay is its own independent community with its own mayors, schools, and markets, with families living side-by-side in adjoining homes. This type of living breeds extreme community, but it also brings about its fair share of danger. The night before Taz and I met, for example, a fire broke out in a barangay on the other side of the city, burning 40 houses and displacing 80 families. And that was a small one. Just a few weeks earlier on New Years, 1,000 homes burned in barangays in Tondo.
Taz, Han, and I walked to the edge of Makati, past the modern “Market Market” mall. We crossed the street, turned down a small alley, and then took a narrow staircase that transported us away from the busy highway. All of a sudden things began to look different. The skyscrapers were no longer in sight. The houses became smaller. Kids were playing in the street, and there were no cars. People sat out in front of storefronts, smoking cigarettes with their legs crossed. Basketball hoops with broken backboards were hung on the side of colorful – bold blue and seafoam green and bright yellow – schoolyards. Laundry was strung out on lines between the crumbling walls of old buildings.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
Taz flagged down a motorbike with a sidecar, known locally as a tricycle. “My house,” he said.
Taz lives in a concrete home with his mother and father, his sister, his brother and his sister-in-law, his two nieces, his wife, and his two kids. Taz’s father drives a taxi for a living. Because he can only rent the cab by the day, he works consecutively for 24 hours on alternating days, sleeping only one hour per shift. His sister is a professional singer, performing in bars across town, her set finished only after the last customer has left at three or four in the morning. His mother has opened a “sari-sari” store in their home with a walk-up window that doubles as a backdoor. She sells “tissue-economy” products: single servings of coffee and shampoo, individual cans of corned beef and sardines, and cigarettes by the stick. Such stores, designed to sell products in small, inexpensive quantities, are a dime a dozen in the barangays, but she tries to beat out the competition with a friendly financing policy: Customers have one month to pay the bill.
After shopping at a “wet market” – a market that sells fresh produce and fresh fish (dry markets sell nonperishable items) – we cooked Adobo Chicken on the family’s single electric burner. The local favorite in these parts, it is made with vinegar and garlic. Taz said vinegar was commonly used in the old times because it helped things cook faster and use less fuel – the latter especially important for those with limited resources. I dug in, but none of them ate, despite the large pan of chicken in front of us. Not even Taz. “They won’t eat in front of you,” Hans told me later. “They want you to enjoy. But later when we go back, there’ll be no leftovers.”
I had to argue with Taz’s mother and sister-in-law to let me do the dishes. Ultimately, they agreed to let me bring my plate from the table to the sink. While they cleaned using water from a plastic faucet, I toured the upstairs, where Taz lived in a small room with his wife and two kids. In the other room, his brother lived with his wife and kid. Both rooms were impressively clean and colorful, and both had televisions. His brother had a fish tank. In a sharp contrast, the bathroom was also up there, in which the entire family shared a bucket shower. Downstairs, there were two bedrooms connected to the main room. One of them had a WWE poster in it. The main room was set up around the television and a set of plastic chairs, with religious figurines and family photos gracing the unfinished cement walls. I asked Taz’s father, who had been glued to CNN since my arrival, why he liked watching the news so much.
“I see other places there,” he said.
After lunch, we hit the town. Here, three-wheeled “tricycles,” a motorbike with a sidecar, are the preferred form of transportation to navigate the narrow streets. We were lucky to time our afternoon ride with the letting out of school, and the streets were loaded with children. Some walk to and from school; others have to come up with the money to pay for a tricycle ride, about 50 pesos, or one dollar, a day. Taz’s family could afford to pay for his tricycle ride, but one of his friends, whose family was too poor, paid his way by collecting and cashing in plastic bottles.
Probably the most moving, and most surprising, thing about my day was the visit to the graveyard. It’s not too often that town tours take you through the local cemetery, but Taz thought it would be a good way for me to understand the entire scope of life in the barangays. In what is perhaps the most unusual of symbiotic relationships, the poorest of the poor, with nowhere else to go, strike deals with the families who bury their dead and live in semi-permanent shelters on top of the cement, above-ground caskets. They live there free of charge, but maintain the grave site, keeping it clean and free of weeds. Then, a few times a year, when the family of the deceased wants to come pay its respects, the live-in family packs up and leaves – just for the day.
As we leave the cemetery, Taz told me he had to go. It was his niece’s birthday, and they were throwing a party later that night. I asked him what was on the agenda, and he told me that no party would be complete without karaoke. That is the Filipino way, he said. The tricycle took me to the edge of the barangay, where it had to drop me off. The tricycles are only permitted on the barangay roads. Before long I was in the back of a cab, back onto the main roads, sitting in grid-lock traffic, those tall, clean skyscrapers once again directly above me. I had learned more about Metro Manila in the last four hours than I did the previous four days. The barangays might be the poorest areas of the city, but they are undoubtedly the most colorful and communal, a far cry from the all-to-familiar rat race I returned to in Makati.
Stereotypes say that Filipinos are jealous people, that if someone creates a successful business, others will soon follow. Maybe that’s why you see so many sari-saris and roasted chicken stands, back to back to back along the road. After all, stereotypes exist for a reason. When it comes to the future of tourism in the Philippines, and the prospect of visitors learning something beyond the best beaches, let’s hope that stereotype once again proves true in the barangays of Metro Manila.
If you go:
Proceeds go, in part, to sending local kids living in the barangays to high school and university.