Tuesday, February 15, 2011

biggest elvis & some final thoughts

manila really did light up big and bright for new years. it was like nothing i have ever experienced. if i was in a war zone, would it have been any different?

well, now for some final thoughts on the philippines and i will lay this trip to rest. well, first i will say that i am glad that i waited till the end of my stay in the philippines to begin reading “biggest elvis,” one of the books i brought on the trip. the book is told from the perspective of numerous different (and mostly cynical) characters, and each of them have something to say about the philipphines.

for example, one embittered american says this about the traffic: “this wasn’t a traffic jam, that would be like calling a lump of coal a dead plant. this was hell and we were all going to die here in the poisoned air because everything was burning coffee grounds and the visibility went as far as the side of the road, where i saw a line of stores, places with pots of food on tables, stacks of retread tires, wicker furniture, signs advertising bed spacer to rent and go-go dancer wanted and goats for sale. and there were people along the road, kids and dogs just watching us not moving, like they were fishermen on a riverbank, casting a line out into the traffic, pulling in an aerial or a rusted muffler…”

and then this: “i saw high-rise buildings with cranes on top only you couldn’t tell if the buildings were going up or coming down. on the beach side, on low swampy land that stuck out into the bay, there was a bunch of shacks that were worse than anything i'd ever seen, acres of shacks, laundry, mud, and babies.”

unlike the guy in the book, i actually really like a bustling city where the rigidity of sterile american customs do not apply. and maybe it's somewhat ethnocentric on my part to stare at the other and just say “wow,” but it’s maybe it's a step in the right direction, especially when you are sharing space with others that see the country like albert lane (the character i quoted above.) so thus was my trip altered somewhat. but as much as i enjoy drowning in the differences of another country, i can also sit back and appreciate the clashes of culture that i feel within myself and that i observe in the people around me.

for example: i needed a pair of socks – so i went to sm market (this big department store chain found all over manila). i figured i’d find my socks in the underwear department, at least it made sense to me. so i approached the section and about 2-3 sales reps approached me, “hello, sir? do you wear boxers or briefs?”
“uh… where are the socks?”
“oh… socks! they are over in the middle of the store.” i left the section (but not before another woman asked me the boxers/briefs question while holding a package of underwear up for me to look at.)
well, I found the sock section – and it really was just that: a section with just socks. i approached cautiously, noticing the abnormally large crowd of sales people in the section. i was swarmed. i had 3-4 sales reps in front of me and equally as many to the back and sides. they were all holding up different types of socks: dress socks, crew socks, sports socks, and what-have-you.
“hello sir! these socks here are very beautiful.”
“may i help you, sir?”
“what are you looking for, sir?”
i actually started laughing… “uh… socks?” i tried to move into the sock display racks so i could find what i was looking for (ankle socks to wear with my slip-on crocs, even though that may be a bad fashion decision to some of yall) and the crowd moved with me, still asking their questions, and holding up socks to my face with some intensity, finally blocking my path so i couldn’t move.
finally I had to plead: “can i just get some socks, please?”
one of the sales reps took the lead: “oh, okay! shhh everyone! be quiet and let him look!” the crowd fell silent and moved back to form a path into the inner-sanctum of the sock section. i walked in, immediately found what i was looking for while the reps looked on in silence. when i moved to leave, the clamoring started up again: “sir! sir! what about this one?”
i know i shouldn’t feel the need to say this, but i really am not exaggerating. after my escape, i stood about 30 feet removed so i could count the number of sales reps: 19. i was so completely disbelieving of my own count that i counted again: 22. i don’t know which count is most accurate. was somebody hiding behind a sock display the first time i counted or did i just happen to count the same person twice?
but this is illustrative of every store: there always seems to be more people working than what the business needs. (but considering the unemployment rate is high, it can’t be a bad thing, right?)

so spending time in the philippines with other americans, i tried to allow myself to absorb the culture of the foreigner in a place that doesn’t quite agree with them. and the opinions people have are amazing… maybe something like this, (to quote albert lane from the biggest elvis again):
“the country was a dump, let’s face it... what ever happened here since world war ii that mattered? …when was the last time anybody said, hey, let’s all go to a filipino restaurant? what's your favorite filipino movie?”

and so this is part of the experience as well… I can look at traffic in new dehli, or chickens on a bus in Laos, or a guinea pig on my plate in peru and just say “wow.” well, observing the observations of americans in a strange land aint no different. i can just sit back, say wow, and see the world through their eyes for a bit…

but in the end, i need to give my own description of manila: it is a truly amazing city. crowded, polluted, gray – yes, it is all that. but when i sit in a taxi weaving in and out of traffic – i still get that feeling of awe. the cityscape is really something to look at; this may sound weird, but it’s the billboards! they are so huge – skyscraper size, i swear – and they line both sides of the streets, so that when driving through the traffic they tower over the car, growing and changing shapes as they pass by, like some crazy illustration in a dr. sues book. and especially at night: they’re lit so brightly that i really could believe in all the capitalist dreams they promised me: if I drink that soda, or if I buy that watch or that pair of pants, i will be happy, smiling, and attractive, and I will too get that skeezy-looking blonde girl to stand next to me for a photo shoot.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post! I loved the descriptiveness! :-) Thanks for sharing your time spent on your trip, I've loved seeing and reading about it!


Anonymous said...

Yes, an excellent post, and I really liked reading it. I also like in "Biggest Elvis" when Chester described what the guys back in West Virginia would think of the Filipina he saw singing on Guam: "They'd sell the trailer for one slow dance."