I have always been fascinated by cities. They are busy, overpowering and constantly in motion- working around the clock to keep up with the demands of the people. Metro Manila is another 'city that never sleeps' and the pace of life was in sharp contrast to the calm quiet of Cabiao. Like the infamous 'ice-bucket challenge', Manila overwhelmed my senses and made me feel both empowered and insignificant: I was simultaneously inspired and intimidated by the city. In my opinion, a capital city is a place of ambition and aspiration and embodies the dreams of the people. Whenever I first set foot in a city I feel invigorated and invincible, with a sense that anything is possible. Perhaps reminiscent of the 'American Dream' my expectations become warped by popular culture: game shows that make anybody a somebody; bosses with more money than sense; glamorous gowns and fast cars. All these things seem obtainable when you are cursing around the city. At one point I was certain that I was going to run into Ann Curtis (a very famous Filipino actress/singer/model) who in turn would introduce me to her agent. Boom. Life sorted.
But of course this didn't happen. In fact, it became apparent that no one noticed or cared about the "blonde white girl" in Manila. I'm no princess, but after 8 weeks of being treated like a local celebrity in Cabiao- always being waved at and asked for photos- I really noticed the absence of this attention. I was normal again. Unimportant. Just as if I was walking around in London, or in my home town of Letchworth.
The city doesn't care about you.
Much more striking than my dilemma were the scenes of poverty, witnessed from the window of our air-conditioned mini bus. The slum setting is built into all the cracks of Manila, and even where there is a 'Gucci' shop, a poor person is never far. Children roamed the streets asking for money and toddlers ran across the city's notorious roads with dirty faces and tatty clothes. The 'magic' of Manila was not present in these places, only a harsh reality where dreams are still waiting to come true.
The city can be cruel.
But this is what makes Manila such an captivating cultural study, because it encompasses such diversity and breadth.
The main purpose of the trip was for the UK volunteers to renew their Visas, so we started the day in old town Manila. After an infuriating few hours at the bureau of immigration, we were given a tour by Sophia. Intramuros was where Sophia used to study, so she had a lot of information about the Spanish architecture in the area. It did, at times, feel like I had been transported to Madrid when I viewed the old churches and cobble stoned walls- there was even a collection of gorgeous tapas bars!! (NB. This is my all time favourite cuisine!) However, fast forward an hour and I had arrived in Makati: 'up-town' Manila. Incredibly modern, fancy and flash, Makati is like the Los Angeles of the metropolis and a world away from the the city we had just encountered. (NB. There are several cities within the province of Manila. The Metro is huge- bigger than the whole of Singapore!) The mall we visited was by far the biggest I have ever been in and was very glamorous. There was a strip of fabulous bars and exotic restaurants that completely obliterated my budget- but it was great for some one-off fancy fun! Luckily, our programme supervisor-Toni- is quite well connected and took us to the spots where all the cool cats hang out. One bar in particular- 'Exit'- was hidden in an unassuming coffee shop. Basically, you have to go through the cafe and open a fire exit door at the back to find this rather exclusive lounge bar. So. Cool.
One day was not enough.
Oh Manila I'm craving for more.