Thrilla in Manila! Well, our trip was not quite a “thrilla”, more of an enjoyable visit. Sadly showing my age by making a reference to the big fight between Ali and Frazier in 1975 although in my defense I hadn’t been born yet. However, when referencing Manila, it was always the first thing that came to mind – up until this visit at least.
Following our adventure in El Nido, Palawan, we spent a week staying with Lou’s family in Quezon City, a suburb of Manila. Lou’s tita (auntie in tagalog) Bunny lives here with her two children, Lou’s cousins, VJ and Jordan. It’s been great to spend a week with a Philippine family and allow Lou to spend time with them and catch up. We also got spoilt with some home cooking and hospitality which was a welcome change from some of the laissez faire service we had become accustomed to.
From observing the lives of those that live in Manila, one thing that strikes me here is that Filipino’s work hard. Really hard. They keep long hours and the commutes are no joke. Tita Bunny leaves the house at 5.30am to be at her work for 7am everyday and she isn’t back home until a similar time each evening. That’s a long day and being out of the 9 – 5 lifestyle makes it seem that much longer. Lou’s cousin VJ works as an EMT nurse – her shifts are typically 24 or 48 hours long. I appreciate she might get some rest during that time but nonetheless that is an exceptionally long time to remain alert and work for, especially in the EMT environment. We also met Tito Butch who lives down the street – he took Lou to basketball every morning when she was here about 13 years ago and getting ready to play basketball in college. Butch has a 3 hour commute each way to work everyday, insane. But I think it’s an accepted part of the culture here that you will work hard, it is vastly more commercialized than any other city we have seen in the Philippines thus far and seems to embody a dream of opportunities for Filipino’s that move here.
This commercialization has produced some positives and negatives for the city. On the plus side I can see that industry, particularly construction is booming. A friend of mine, Sam, whom I played basketball with in North Sydney for a couple of years always said the prosperity of a city can be linked to the number of cranes you can see on the skyline. If this is a measure of Manila then the city is really going leaps and bounds, the skyline is littered with cranes.
There are some complexes in Manila where you have to double take as you could just as easily be in the US. We wondered around the East gardens complex at one point and it was like being at an American mall – the stores and feel of the place were identical – TGI Fridays, Starbucks and H&M. You can tell there is more money in Manila, the cars are newer here and there are more brands available, for the first time in a month I’ve seen new BMW’s, Mustangs, Hummers and Mercedes.
However, the other side to this is that the poverty here is still very real. The standard of living for working class here would be lower than in the Western world. And then very poor people still live in slums, you see people occasionally begging or trying to sell products on the street. Traveling around the city is strange because you go between poverty and affluence very quickly. Many poorer people will jump between cars on the clogged freeways to sell corn and drinks.
Manila’s biggest problem might be the traffic though. The city is full of it and the problem is very real. A 40min journey could take around 2hrs and I could see why families here are very tightly knit and don’t stray too far from home. The main roads here are busy and clogged between Monday and Saturday, even late at night, they are still humming. Traffic here is probably the worst I’ve seen. LA is bad, London is bad, but they’re not in the same class as Manila. If you look online for “Manila traffic” many articles surface that argue the traffic here to be the worst in the world. The Asian driving style also manifests itself here, it’s organized chaos and many drivers think nothing of swinging into oncoming traffic to make maneuvers with a friendly beep.
A majority of our week here was spent working and staying at the house, we had some dinners with Lou’s family and she has a little game going where she compares and rates the adobo (Filipino chicken or pork soy style dish) of each competing family member. As an outsider to this game, it seems like she has them all wrapped around her little finger, trying to compete for the prize of best adobo. However I can see that Filipino’s love to cook and entertain people so it might not be as one sided as I think. The great thing from my perspective is that we’ve been able to try some great local food and home cooking, something that I’ve really enjoyed. Each family has their own take on pancit, adobo and some of the other popular local dishes – Tita Bunny made me some fantastic fish in coconut sauce that was a highlight for me on the food scale.
It was somewhat difficult for us to venture out of the city during our short stay. The aforementioned traffic triples most journey times. In Manila I’ve noticed that a lot of locals enjoy “malling”. American style malls are all across the city, many younger Filipino’s hang out at malls with their friends and this seems more popular and pronounced than anywhere I’ve been before. I’m also not used to going through a security check every time I enter a mall, another reminder of the potential danger in Manila. I attracted the regular stares from the locals as we ventured around and one of my funniest moments came squeezing onto the back of the motorcycle end of a tricycle with Tita Bunny and Lou to go to the mall. Fortunately for me, they were cramped inside the tricycle so couldn’t see me and my limbs hanging off the bike to the side of them.
While on our trip Lou wanted to meet with her friend who lived in Manila. Kelly Williams plays basketball in the PBA (pro league) and has lived here for the most part of the last 10yrs. Lou played basketball in college at Oakland University at the same time as Kelly and they’ve remained in touch throughout the years, the common ground being their Filipino roots and basketball. Kelly thus far, has had an outstanding pro career here, winning rookie of the year, slam dunk and MVP honors on top of league championships. Kelly hooked us up with some game tickets for his team, Talk’n’Text which further supported my rationale behind dating Lou! The first game was in the old but charming Araneta Coliseum, the site of the Thrilla in Manila, how cool. I’m pretty confident the inside of the arena has not changed one bit since then, and a banner marking the fight still hangs from the ceiling.
The overall standard of the league is good, for me it is a better standard than the pro leagues in the UK and similar to that of the ABA in Australia, just perhaps with better athletes and more money involved. I can see its been a great vessel for Kelly, so many Americans stop playing competitively after college and don’t see overseas as a viable alternative. However, if the situation is right then, as in Kelly’s case, you can earn money for pursuing a passion, immerse yourself in another culture and travel. I think provided you are looked after, physically and mentally then it’s a great way to earn a living. Kelly was great to chat to and hang out with, it’s easy to see how much he loves the game and we had an interesting chat about his legacy and life after basketball. I’d also highly recommend his book, Rising Higher, it’s a great insight into the transitions that many athletes make throughout their careers and a look at some of the personal challenges he has faced.
After watching our second game of the week at the Mall of Asia Arena, we went out to eat with a few of the players from the team which was a lot of fun and the first time me and Lou have been out for a late one since we started our adventures. Karaoke added in, mine and Lou’s first experience with that activity, somehow turned into a 3am finish but I’m blaming that on traffic, not Vodka. Kelly has some great teammates, all with interesting stories and backgrounds plus it was fun to chat basketball and have some banter – something I’ve missed. My thanks goes to Kelly, Lamont, Mo and Josh. Kelly thanks for the game tickets and some beautiful Frank Sinatra serenade! Lamont appreciate you taking us to the game although I’m still not sure if midget wrestling is a thing! And my final thank you list goes to Tita Bunny, VJ & Jordan for making us so welcome in your home and taking care of us for the week. Manila, its been fun.