Posted by: twistsoffeet | April 2, 2010

Something Darker

Manila is the melting pot of south east Asia.

Philippine nationals from every province, speaking tagalog and one or more of the over 100 distinct dialects spoken in the Philippines, Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Malay, Indonesian, American, British, Australian, Christian, Islam, Buddhist– all and many more can be found here. In places, cosmopolitan–but never sanitary, everyone carries a knife or a gun. Maybe because of this, there is supposedly very little violent crime– at least that is what’s reported and publicized. Think: Chinese Triad meets Japanese Yakuza with desperate poverty and the corruption that goes along with it. Manila the most disgustingly polluted, corrupt, crime-ridden hell hole of a city anyone could ever fall in love with.

My first time in this paradise was short.  I arrived at the airport, flown in covertly, no customs, no immigration just met our military escort who guided us to a province that will currently remain unnamed, where we conducted our business for a couple of weeks, all the while guarded by a full battalion of Philippine military, provided by then general soon to be President ***** *****.  But this story is not about that trip.

My next trip, I arrived at Benigno Aquino International Airport in the afternoon.  We went through normal customs and immigration and then I went to my hotel. I have a favorite little hotel in Ermita, a city in the Manila metroplex of approximately 15 million people. This hotel is in the red light district, but then all of Manila is a red light district. Heart-racing, blood-pulsing excitement is to be found 24/7– my kind of place. Everyone warned me about the dangers of Manila, and in retrospect I was probably foolish to ignore these warnings. My journey through the city began at about 4:00 p.m. and ended twenty four hours later. After showering, and convincing myself that I really wanted to photograph this city, I grabbed a camera, about 10 rolls of film, and started walking.

Now I am a firm (99.999%) believer that  I can go anywhere I want without problems if I walk with my head up as though I belong there, do not tuck my tail between my legs in fear, treat everyone with respect and truly have a serious and honest interest in the culture I am exploring. On this expedition I discovered a different good luck charm, so to speak.

This journey started out without any excitement, a little disgust over the pollution and poverty, but nothing extraordinary. Then darkness set in, and life was about to get exciting.  As I walked along a narrow unlit street, where the only light was from the windows of apartments and the moon, a very large Philipinno man stepped from the shadows of a doorway.  He looked at me like a lioness who was staring down fresh meat on the hoof. Suddenly, he got this big smile on his face said, “Huh, Stone Cold…”  He struck an incredible hulk pose slapped me on the back and gave me a beer. He thought, I think, that I was the wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin.  At the time, I did bear a slight yet smaller resemblance to him. He guided me through his barangay safely and introduced me to a friend in the next baranguy who did the same on and on through the night.

A few days later, unable to sleep at 300 a.m., I left the hotel again, camera in hand. I headed for the malecon– or seal wall. Ermita runs along Roxas Blvd. The walkway or promenade, a one time a park about 50 yards wide between Roxas and Manila Bay, was now a jumble of broken concrete, palm trees, mud, broken glass that ran for a couple of miles.  It was now home to over 10,000 homeless families. Not homeless people, but 10,000 entire families, probably 60-70,000 people. Small children with bloated bellies from malnutrition slept on broken concrete or dirt, and if fortunate, on a small piece of card board. Dirty, wearing filthy stained, torn clothes, some were already or maybe still awake, bathing in the ocean. I broke down in tears, barely able to avoid crying hysterically, feeling ashamed, embarrassed, disgusted and horrified at the sight. I wondered how this could happen in a modern, somewhat cosmopolitan city.  How could this happen in a modern industrialized nation?  How could this happen and nobody in the western world knew about it? I took several rolls of film, all the while feeling disgustingly like a voyeur, a perverted intruder on these peoples’ pain and misery.  And I doubt that anyone, including myself, will ever view these photos again. I have looked at them one time since they were developed.  It was painful, and if I were to show them to anyone else I feel I would be exploiting the pain of these people.

I just can not do that.


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