The good thing about this vacation is the joy I feel when I finish reading a book. There is a sudden elation. I wish to write my immediate book review but I don’t have a post-reading outlet. If I were in the US, I would probably write a reaction instantly on my laptop. The spotty Internet in my hotel would not allow that. Which can be disappointing.
I usually do my disappearing act in a situation like this. In the US, I take my car to go to the park, or the beach to relax and change the scenery. There is the ocean, or the gardens where I can take a stroll and contemplate beautiful thoughts. Sometimes I go to the library, (oh I miss a library, they are as rare as precious gems in Manila) to peruse book titles that pick my interest. Or else I go to outlets where second hand books abound. Here in Manila, I don’t see any of these outlets, maybe I am at the wrong place but intellectual spots and venues are the least I can find here.
I went out of my hotel, there is a mall a few steps outside but I could not tolerate it anymore. To get to a mall everyday stirred irritation in me, especially with crowds that mindlessly walk the floors, climb escalators, ride elevators while gawking at the same eateries and shops and what have you. Wandering in the same place everyday will just make me crazy. I keep reminding myself -- I am not in a developed country, it is not a backward country either but I’d say a developing country. Obviously, there is a tendency to compare my American life with Philippine life which is unfair because it is like comparing an apple with an orange. I don’t fancy myself a cultural guru dispensing what is good or bad in a society. I just learn to modify, adjust, take some different routes and hope that I will end in some exciting tunnel.
So I ignored the mall; it was getting dark. Just like in the old days, I always preferred night wandering in Manila. The decibels are quieted down, the foot traffic slowly drops to a trickle, and the darkness hides ugly places and people. Very similar to America. When you want to listen to your inner thoughts, Manila darkness is the best time of day. Lights are reflected by the waters of Manila Bay; one can hear the flapping of bird wings, I hear a barking dog from a distance, and depending on the time, a cock crowing. Lots of crickets.
I directed my steps towards the Quiapo church, which was a landmark I often visited during my college years here. It surely is different nowadays from what it was 40 years ago, the fiesta atmosphere remains, however, the same old business entrepreneurs persist - they sell everything from scapulars to healing oils and fluids, to rosaries and novenas. Statues of saints, especially the Black Nazarene are all over, made of wood, plaster and other materials - sold in terms of strength and fragility without a word of its sacred symbol. The Black Nazarene of Quiapo had always been the symbol of Manila culture. The devotees sincerely believe in its miraculous power, the Lord becomes a talisman of magic, an idea I totally disagree with, something tolerable but not acceptable.
And there are many unacceptable things at the Quiapo.
I wade through a sea of people, and it is made worse by the holiday season. I crossed the street at Avenida and was met by hawkers and peddlers of food, ranging fish balls to coco juice, I bumped against somebody and I was pushed away from the sidewalk to the main street, if you call it a street given the impromptu vendors that sprung up overnight. In this place, you sell your wares without permits or any regulatory body to give it a go or not. Which in a way is a saving grace for impoverished people. A man can just pick up a cart, fill it with young coconuts and bring in a bolo; he can sell each fruit for 45 pesos, shave its husk with the bolo, cut out a hole and pour its juice to a clean plastic bag, crack open the coconut and scrape off its soft meat inside and voila, you give the buyer an instant hydrolyte. Someone can just bring in a table or a rolling rack and fill it with products on consignment and he can earn a living just by that. I paced slower to watch at the other vendors and sellers; I was more interested in buying food, especially the food I haven’t eaten for the past 3 decades. It was a virtual feast to my eyes. In between leather goods, dry goods, clothing, toys, fruits and veggies, one is selling sweet rice cakes. I have seen a pandesal portable bakery, it is a motorized glass stand that can bake and sell fresh pandesal. I was also on the lookout for the panciteria and sotanghon eateries that I visited in my college years and they are still there standing, same product and same routine. Order and the food will immediately be filled, it will be handed to you and carried to any available table inside. Just like was done forty years ago and perhaps many centuries ago.
And that is what I like about Quiapo. I feel like partaking in this ritual that has been going on for centuries. The market, the eatery, the merchandise, the fly-by-night and permanent shops and vendors - I am witnessing a continuum that doesn’t care. The ritual will stay many many years after I am gone.