Friday, February 22, 2013

Baguio City: Panagbenga

Igorot Street Dance
Panagbenga is the Festival of Flowers, held in Baguio City on the last weekend of February. It’s one of the most famous festivals in the Philippines, and images from the parade and performances are seen country-wide. Sorry to disappoint all you fans of verbosity, but this will be one of those rare posts with more pictures than stories…

The hills in the distance are covered with buildings too!
The festival lasts something like three weeks, with the main events happening on the closing weekend. People warned that I wouldn’t be able to find a bus to Baguio during the festival - so I didn’t. I hopped a 5am bus up to San Fernando near my lolo’s hometown of Aringay, and squeezed guitar, pack, and self into a jeepney. It felt like I was coming into Baguio through the backdoor. My Uncle Danilo was expecting lots of people but he opened his house up to me anyways. A short downhill walk found me at his door.

A very special sculpture commissioned by Uncle Dani
Downstairs bar
Uncle Dani is a well-known doctor and educator of medicine in the Philippines. He has a house to match his reputation and his personality. My uncle is always actively learning and growing as a person. His house tags along. Uncle Dani has deep respect for nature. His house is built into the landscape, and nature is an ever-present theme indoor. According to him, his working/living spaces are touched by Wu Wei, which is a Chinese philosophy of non-doing in the way that trees grow without trying to grow, the way water flows effortlessly and moves in a never-ending cycle. Things don’t start and end. They just are.

Downstairs movie theater. Can you see it?
How about now?
Kitchen #1 of 4 (AKA the "show kitchen")
His house juxtaposes circles against angles, and lines seem to trail off into nothing. I was most struck by how spaces are framed organically, mimicking nature in serenity, simplicity, and subtle serendipity. Doors don’t interrupt spaces by swinging into them. Windows slide open or closed, which opens or encloses different spaces. A round table wraps the dead end of a wall. He thinks like an artist, and he uses his artist’s eye to pull people’s awareness towards certain things or away from others. There are seemingly hidden rooms and stairwells, and minute changes in altitude and room height make it feel like you’re playing on tree roots as you move from room to room. Beautiful woods, art pieces, displays of nature. It’s a brilliant place.

Fish tank - Uncle Dani has a thing for fish tanks.
He thinks they are calming. And he simply loves fish! 
Main Dining. Love the curved line in the custom cabinet on the left and the circles above it.
Nicest thing about simple beauty? It's cheap!
Like the asymmetrical windows that also contain sliding doors (pagoda-style)
The "waiting hall"
His house was built by the impressive career he made for himself. His practice now is sort of his pre-retirement social work project. His specialty is pulmonary medicine, and he now provides consultation in exchange for whatever the patients can offer. Discount? Sure. Php100 and a bowl of cabbages? Great! You just walked a goat into my office. Thank you so much! What a generous gift! What can I do for you? Uncle Dani has so much love for everyone that comes into his office, and people feel it. For a year they save everything they can so they can make the trip from places far and wide just to see him because they trust him, and because he's the best. His office is designed with the simplicity and genius with which he build his house, but with more modest tone. He capped it off with crafty additions like a bed built into the bookshelf, and an ingeniously simple X-Ray backlight (behind his head in the photo). There's also a fish tank and simple calming decorations that are hard to capture by photograph. It's a humble, calming, caring space - exactly the kind of place a healthcare office should be (but almost never is).

The office. Behind me, I came from a room for the secretary that's about 1/3 the size of this one.
Baguio's version of Central Park, at the bottom of the valley
I had been to Baguio before, but only a brief visit with my uncle and cousins. I never really got to wander the city. Baguio is located in the Cordillera Mountains. There is a very special character and energy to this landscape. The mountains are very steep, jagged, and covered with lush vegetation. The pine trees here -  imported from Spain centuries ago - are part of the area's uniqueness. The city itself is nestled into a valley with ridgelines sprawling up from a central flat bottom the size of a football field. It’s hard to describe the steepness of the roads. The last 15-20 years have absorbed a population eruption – new developments and vast neighborhoods of squatters cling to the surrounding slopes, poised to tumble down into the unseen valley bottom like a cruel experiment in potential energy. This is today’s reality, even after a Ms = 7.8 earthquake decimated the entire city in 1990. Once, Uncle Dani began to speak about what it was like to be a doctor in Baguio in the following weeks, but memory lane quickly became to treacherous to continue. Still, the cool air isn’t nearly as polluted as Manila; and in the mornings, mist rises up from below to evaporate into dawn.

Camping in the hills around the park. Community trust in action!
In the morning I climbed into a packed-full jeepney into town, thrilled to be breathing clean air and smelling plants again after an intoxicating month in Manila. On one side of me was a beautiful Filipina looking excited for the day’s festivities, clutching her colorful mountain-weave bag. On the other side of me was a man coughing up something horrible. I felt energized, empathetic, and euphoric, so I pretended not to notice this man hocking up pneumonia-deep mucus into my right ear. His coughing got worse at every turn, and by the time we were near town, I thought either his lungs or his stomach would end up in my lap. It wasn’t until I got off the jeepney that I realized that this guy had gotten me to angle away just enough for him to open my ZIPPERED back pocket and snatch the 200 pesos kept inside. On a bumpy, loud, asphyxiating jeep ride, it’s not surprising I didn’t notice. People regularly fly off the bench and into the roof while riding these beasts. “Wow, that’s the first time I’ve ever had my pocket picked,” I thought, flipping through memories of all the poor towns and rough city neighborhoods I’d walked and inhabited without problem. My second thought was, “You know, it’s only $5, and that guy put up a hell of a show to get that money, and without me knowing. In a way, he earned it.” And I let my initial anger go – as easy as it had come.

Sneak peak: the parade begins...
Or if you're still afraid, you can always get an aptly-named "Self-Defense Bag"!
I’d like to give a few sentences to travel fears. Fears have a way of manifesting themselves. If you have no fears, they almost never manifest. Think about it. If you’re walking through a town like you’ve been there a million times, radiating confidence and calm, you’re not going to look like easy prey. In fact, you’re completely aware of everything around you and more able to both enjoy the moment you’re in, as well as react if there’s ever any danger. If you’re all stress and confusion, with too many bags or possessions hanging off you, covering up your insecurities with jewelry and accessories, well, hellooo easy money! Here’s a tip: have only what you need with you, carry a loaded steel water bottle in your hand, keep your big bills in a secret pocket or inaccessible place, and “Baby, don’t worry… about a thing!” You'll be fine.

Speaking of fear... Whether it's silly government warnings about the country you're about to visit,
or the church warning you about hell, it's hard to escape the deep fears
that our social environments force upon our fragile psyches.
Hitler's Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbles, as well as Lenin -
"Repeat a lie often enough, and it becomes truth."
In my opinion, it's better to let intuition decide what, if anything, is worth fearing.
While I was taking a nap under a tree, these kids played with me,
the way little people might play with a giant - feathers, fingers and giggles.
So I woke up and played back.
Pickpocket or no, it was a great day. I found my way to the parade line and arrived just as the head of the parade stepped off. Festivals here seem to follow a pattern – there’s a parade with competitive groups from the area, and then there’s a day of performances for big cash prizes. The Cordillera Mountains’ six provinces are home to hundreds of indigenous cultures collectively called Igorot. There are similarities, but there are also vast differences in language, art, beliefs and culture. The best cultural groups in the entire region come to compete in this festival. The costumes, the props, the colors, and creativity are second only to the zeal with which they are all displayed, each culture competing not only for money, but for the right to exist in the face of dizzyingly rapid invasion of gasoline-fueled materialism. Here are some pictures from the parade: 

The Sunflower is the featured flower of Panagbenga Festival
Evil Spirit or Halloween in February?

Dance of the Birds - Guina'ang Folk Troupe
Move over Parade of Roses!

Elders are highly respected
Amazing Dress!
These boys were a trip - Camera Candy!

Always messing around, but always on cue!
Guina'ang Folk Troupe in performance - drum line on the right
After the parade, I mingled with people and wandered around town. In the flat center of the city was a paddle-boat pond bordered by grass, benches, trees, and a road. Vendors occupied every conceivable empty space surrounding the park. I looked far and wide for buko (young coconut) until I practically tripped over a vendor. My favorite lunch in hand, I wandered over to the stadium/park to watch the performances. So many curious eyes followed me, seeming to wonder at this white guy carrying a buko (they all had horribly processed junk food and soft drinks in their hands, which cost five times more than my superfood lunch). I caught the last few performances for the last day of competition. I didn’t know where any of them were from, but I found out later that the first one I saw was from the tiny village of Guina’ang, and they won the whole shebang – 150,000 pesos. Guina’ang was where I was headed to build a library! That’s a HUGE sum, earned as a result of vast collective effort on the part of almost every member of the community.

A member of the Guina'ang Folk Troupe
I hadn’t eaten at a restaurant since Dumaguete months earlier, and I heard of a place that was supposed to have real tablea cocoa. I had a vegetarian pasta, and I forgave myself for the carabao cream (from a water buffalo) that was in the super rich hot chocolate. I ate alone in the soothing ambiance, every mouthful steeped in pleasure. I spent a good 15 minutes watching some large, peaceful ants explore what was left on my plates (only an ant could find anything left on a plate of mine… they’re usually spotless when I’m through with the food that it held). I left as they were closing, with eternity in my hands, and needing nothing.

By moonlight, I followed the road ~3km back through the hills to Uncle Dani’s home. On the way, I met three kids trying to use a skateboard to travel faster. On the way up a steep hill, I easily passed them by foot. We stopped to have the typical Filipino-stranger conversation: Where are you going? Where are you coming from? What’s your name? On the way down, they sped past me completely out of control, getting swallowed by the headlights of oncoming traffic. I hope they made it home okay, crazy boys.

Some of the wood carvings on display were incredible
The next day I went into town after lunch, letting serendipity be my guide. As the sun pulled over the covers of evening, used clothing vendors from all over the Philippines set up for their big night selling one of the main streets surrounding the central park. There were some serious deals to be had… Too bad I didn’t need anything. I wandered back up the hill to find the famous vegetarian restaurant, Oh My Gulay (gulay means “vegetable” in several Filipino dialects). I couldn’t find it even after an hour treading water on the block that was supposed to be its home. So I settled for a little café below street level that was hosting an event of some sort.

I could see from the woodwork why my Filipino grandpa is such an inspired woodworker himself.
I joined some foreigners at their table and mentioned that I couldn’t find the place I’d been looking for. They said, “Yes, it’s difficult to find, there’s no sign or anything. But you’re awfully warm.” “Really?” “Ya! Just walk to the top of this building, and you’re there.” Ecstatic, I practically ran up the stairs… to the 5th floor! The building didn’t look that tall from the street.

Inside Oh My Gulay - indoors, on the 5th floor.
One of my far-in-the-future fantasies is a venue that acts as musicians/artists coop, showcase of natural building techniques, and off-the-grid restaurant/venue with simple, amazing foods supported by a fully functioning permaculture food forest. The design of this place was basically the high-rise city version of what I had in mind. On the FIFTH floor, the space is two stories but feels outdoors, with mock rooftops at weird angles, natural lighting (dark at night), rotating art installations and pieces, awesome mosaics, stones to walk on and a creek/koi pond with a bridge over it. I was oogle-eyed at this place out of my dreams, noticing every detail and playhouse-like use of space until my eyes fell on something familiar. Russell in the corner!

Current art installation -
I saw a real lion fish in my first week in the Philippines... 6 months earlier.
Russell was the guy I was headed up to Guina’ang in two days to meet and build a library. Russell never ever ever ever comes down to the big city – to Baguio. “What are you doing here???” “What are you doing here???” My story was obvious – I was on my way up to him and stayed for a few days of fun at the Flower Festival. His was more complicated – he was meeting a Filipina ex-girlfriend from two years before, a mandala artist who was up in the Cordilleras for reasons too confusing to understand as yet. His ex, Sarah, and her group were on their way up the stairs, so Russell and I found a bigger seating area up the ladder above us. And thus, I found myself submerged in simple synchronicity.

This night would lead to the most profound personal changes in self and direction that are sure to reach far into the future; it was the climax of what I would later realize was a path that I had been tip-toeing since birth. But the scope would take a lot to explain and complete openness on the part of the reader. Russell came down from his northerly perch in the mountains to meet with Sarah. Sarah Queblatin is a mandala artist, humanitarian activist, and powerful healer. She was in Baguio for many reasons, but mainly to be with Pi Villaraza and the group that manifested around him and around Inner Dance.

Inner Dance, much like a person, is something different and unique with each passing moment. Sticking a "Hello, my name is" label on flowing water or a dust devil doesn’t really work, and describing Inner Dance and the people and places associated with it is equally challenging. Whatever you find on google, and whatever I write here is already outdated and inaccurate since it was written more than a second ago. But, at risk of losing you in the process, I’ll give a schoolboy try at description.

The Inner Dance Crew - Russell is the awkward tall guy lit up in the back.
Inner Dance might better be called Inner Yoga. It’s a form of energy self-healing. Usually learned with a facilitator or a group, it is a powerful and very easy-to-use tool to remember the profound connectedness with existence and healing energy that can be found all around us, at any given moment. Dis-ease in the body is almost always a result of emotional memory pooled as stress. Inner Dance often uses specific music and lighting to enter a conscious trance. This trance of trust facilitates the dissolving of emotional/spiritual blockages in mind/body/soul, and the transmutation of those negative energies into self-healing and empowerment. The clearing of these negative energies can look like dancing, visions, singing, tears, screaming, yoga, sleeping, flying, tai chi, anything really. But it’s all intuitive – if your arm starts to move, it doesn’t feel like you’re moving it, more like an invisible string is gently and lovingly pulling at it. The music made some people associate it with dance. Check out Pi's most up-to-date website to learn about Inner Dance: 

One of many videos about Inner Dance

But I didn’t know any of this stuff at the time, nor did I know that these people I had just met would each have a profound effect on my life. Besides Russell and Sarah, there was Pi, Daniw (his wife and well-known raw foods chef), and Sinag (their 2-yo son). There was Maui and Zelli – Filipino and German alternative/natural builders, along with Zelli’s two daughters. There was Ryan, a permaculturist and acupuncturist based in Mindanao. Shiva, an Ananda Margi and his boyfriend/husband Tony, another Ananda Margi. Both Pinoy, but Tony was raised in Ohio.

As Sarah and Russell gave introductions, I wanted to take each and every person aside for a whole day and talk with them. In my life’s journey, I see myself in transition generation that bears responsibility for finding a new way to live after the current pattern collapses. In the next 20 years, something will make life as we know it unsustainable: lack of potable drinking water, out of oil and coal, global warming, world war, economic collapse. Most signs point to all of this happening in 10-15 years, and all at the same time, as any one will trigger the others. Point is, the current lifestyle has been lived long enough that most people don’t know how to do the basic things to survive that their great-grandparents took for granted, things like finding water, growing food, building a shelter, healing illnesses, making their own tools, building a community, etc… A huge part of my journey has been erasing my fears of survival by learning this basic stuff. Most Filipino elders and rural communities are completely self-sufficient. The Philippines is vastly abundant in skills needed to survive and natural resources. In my mind, this is wealth - not the power of some green-colored pieces of paper backed by the promise that someone owes something of value in exchange for the bank note. The people in this group are all coming into mastery of all the skills I've been seeking, and I’m a sponge wanting to soak it all up.

Russell was on my left, and Tony from Ohio was on my right. Of course I talked the night away with the fellow foodie from my homeland. Tony and I zeroed in on each other, completely stoked to speak American after so many months of clearly enunciating simple sentences to a Filipino population that speaks English as its 3rd, 4th, sometimes 5th or 6th language. I always tell shy English-speakers that their English is 100 times better than my __Tagalog__ (fill in the blank) will ever be. It’s truly impressive how many languages Filipinos can juggle. And oh, to find such an amazing vegetarian meal in a country with one of the worst food cultures in the world, second only to America.

It was on this night that the Universe let me understand just how perfectly existence can flow. Tony was the only person I wouldn’t interact with in the coming months until I came down from the mountains and reconnected with him in Cebu months later. Knowing that I would probably see some of these folks revolving around the project I was headed up to do was good enough to let me leave without feeling desperate to connect with everyone right then and there. Stomachs full, bill paid, we went separate ways. Back on the street, I wandered with Tony and his boyfriend, Shiva looking for a music venue. We got lost and the walk tuckered my new friends out, so they settled for a massage instead.

Meshuggah-lovin' bass man. Damn good player too.
I found the venue late in the night, in the middle of the smorgasbord of bands that I had wanted to sample. A guy walked in with bass in hand and wearing the shirt from one of my favorite music groups – Meshuggah. There’s a certain culture and palate that makes fans instant friends. It’s a metal band responsible for inventing not one, but two subgenres – Math Metal and Djent. It also happens to be a major influence in the jazz world. Anyway, we spent the whole night chatting music until his band got up to play. They were a damn good band on any night, but stellar compared to others that could barely finish a tune, let alone a 20-/30-min set. I walked home under midnight stars and arrived at Uncle Dani’s house just in time for the best part of my cousin’s wife’s birthday party (cake, beer, and reckless karaoke). What a day.

In the morning, I hauled my stuff up the hill to catch a bus north to Guina’ang. The Universe apparently didn't want me to leave the area, as every conceivable delay kept me from getting out, so I went back for another night with Uncle Dani and clan. The next morning I was on the route north for real. By dark I disembarked from a 7-hour bus ride at the steps to Russell's house in Sabangan for the first time since December. The next three months there in Mountain Province would complete the 24-year journey I’d traveled thus far in life, and I would take the first steps with the kind of new consciousness that only comes from major transformation. Here we go!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


I call it: "Manila at sunset from the rooftops" 
Actor at the Wedding
Blind band in front of the iconic Philippine bakery giant,
Goldilocks. They're playing at the bottom of the stairs
at the exit from the light rail train..
Manila is not the first city in the Philippines, but it's by far the biggest. Almost 12 million people packed into 250 sq. miles. My first week in the Philippines gave me a few glimpses of Manila, but the sensory overload was too much for my exhausted mind to digest at the time. This round, I was relaxed and jazzed for a good time.

My relatives and I emptied out of Aringay in a mass pilgrimage to Manila for my cousin's wedding. Uncle Rolly generously keeps his door open for me to stay with him, Chris, Jojo and friends. For the wedding, I was sported a nearly hairless skull, caretaker Efran's cord pants, $5 rubber dress shoes, Uncle Ely's beach-goer's white longsleeve, and bleach-white skin many Filipinas would kill for. I clashed sharply with the formal suits and barongs worn by other men. Uncle Dani said I looked like an actor who was only there to make an appearance.

Chinese New Year main drag (traffic still open!)
But beneath the actor’s façade, I felt deep appreciation for the invitation. The wedding was presided over by a bishop, and besides being excited for my cousin, the ceremony itself was fascinating! I hadn't attended a Catholic wedding since I was old enough to pay attention, and I hung onto every word and movement of the bishop and his helpers. With utmost grace and in a monotone voice, the poor bishop read from his script as if it was written in a beautiful old book, getting lost and stumbling his way through a geriatric haze of the mind.

I passed Quezon City's Memorial Circle on the way to the University of the Philippines Diliman
Helluva Hot Rod!
The reception was beautiful but too short! There were so many relatives I hadn't seen in ages or hadn't even met yet. I could’ve spent hours with each of them. The food was typically Filipino, meaning lots of meat, rice, and fat. I fished some corn out of a roast stew, forgave myself for any dairy that was in dessert, and filled the empty corners of my stomach at the open bar. A famous actor/comedian took the microphone for a while, rapid-fire Tagalog ripping through my right ear and ricocheting out the left. Swells of laughter filled the room and after a long five minutes, he gave a warm-hearted blessing to bride and groom. There was no hope for a translation of what happened in those five minutes.

Outskirts of Divisoria Market from an overpass bridge
In the end, I was kidnapped from a conversation by Uncle Virjilio, whisked downstairs and into a car full of relatives who I didn't know were waiting for me. We headed for a fantastic folk bar called My Bro’s Moustache, where Uncle Renni treated my cousins and I to a night of Red Horse food galore, and great music. Uncle Vic even got up on stage and played a few tunes with his pals. I was blown away by the musicianship of every one of these guys. They know so many tunes and not just one part. Hotel California for instance, has many guitar and voice parts, and each musician knew all of them. The show was only a bready tummy-filler for a month-long banquet of an experience in Manila.

Rooftop view of a southeastern section of the city
Quiapo and a New Camera
Soon after the wedding I finally went in search of a camera to replace the trusty, decade-old one that died of old age and humidity. My relatives back home were so desperate for pictures to prove I was alive and loving life that they pooled extra money and wired the Christmas gift with “for a new camera” chiseled into every digital penny. And where does one go to buy a camera in the Philippines? Well, if you’re REALLY Filipino, you buy it brand new at the highest price from a mall. If you’re frugal bordering on obsessively cheap like me, you go to Quiapo.

Famous Quiapo Church
Quiapo is a neighborhood in one of the oldest parts of the city. Quiapo Church is the final destination for many Catholics visiting Manila. It’s on TV every day. Vendors sell everything you can imagine. Grilled GMO sweet corn, AA batteries, bootleg movies, plastic toys, fried fish balls, stolen iphones, alternative remedies that MUST include a few black market items, cheap Chinese imports for any need, fruits, homemade pastries, single cigarettes, candles and flowers for church, chicks and ducklings, and my favorite, balut. Balut is a fertilized duck egg served steaming but always runny. Lots of bloody, amniotic fluid is a plus. Still haven’t worked up the guts to give a crack at balut.

There are actual stores in Quiapo. Textiles, used clothing, the best hopia in Manila (an awesome stuffed pastry), music shops (hello cheap guitar strings!) and a cluster of specialty camera stores.  Every penny my family sent went to a camera to match my lifestyle. It’s a water-/shock-/dust-/cold-/life-proof tough camera. If it doesn't last at least a decade, I'll be sorely disappointed.

Puppies in Coitus
I spent the next week with Uncle Rolly and crew, a week that happened to be mating time for their doggies. We couldn't help but laugh whenever they were painfully stuck together in coitus. I wandered around the University of Santo Tomas, the oldest university in the Philippines, which my grandfather and many other relatives attended. Street food near the exit is top-quality around the time classes get out. Piaya, bananacue, dynamite sticks, dirty ice cream, and lots of meat stuff. Every other evening at Rolly’s was spent out on the family tab. I still wish there were better ways to thank all of my relatives for the endless food, drinks, treats, hospitality and love.

Condo Complex in Cubao
The love didn't end with Uncle Rolly. As giving as he was, I didn't want to overstay my welcome by sticking around for more than a month. My best friend Jason happens to also be a distant cousin of mine. His (technically also my) family bought a condo in the Manila neighborhood of Cubao. Just months old and bought specifically for balikbayans (relatives visiting from abroad), it hadn't yet been baptized. I was the lucky first to stay there and help iron out any kinks – give a little love to the place.

Setting Foot to Pavement
The International Chess Tournament 
Set with a camera and a place to guiltlessly come home to at any hour, I felt I could truly roam the city. When I get settled somewhere, I follow a pattern of walking larger and larger distances around my roost. I think it's the best way to get acquainted with the people and energy around a new home.

Most of the next four weeks were spent walking the city during the day and hitting the music venues at night. No matter what I wanted to see, it was within a 6-mile radius. For Filipinos, walking more than 200m is too far. It’s hot, dusty, takes effort, and is something you’d probably only do if you couldn’t afford 8 pesos (15 cents) for a jeepney ride. Coming from the United States, walking 2 miles to get to a friend’s house wasn’t out of the question as a kid. No Filipino I’ve ever met would even think about walking 2 miles unless it was a self-inflicted mountain climbing adventure. For me, with more time than pesos on hand, being new to the city, and looking to let serendipity be my teacher, foot transportation was the obvious choice.

With a free map from the tourist office, a water bottle and some Filipino foot covers (flip flops), I’d stake out some sights I wanted to see based on the location of the show I wanted to see that night. Then I’d head out in the late morning, greet the guards at the condo complex, and walk straight west on Aurora Blvd. As the only person coming and going by foot, and at all hours of day, the guards got to know me really well. I can only guess at what they fantasized my late-hours ramblin’ to be filled with.

A short digression: I taught myself to cook by making a point to make an entirely new dish every meal. I’ve scarcely repeated a thing for almost a decade. Some people have their morning coffee, their nightly Stephen Colbert or their Spring Break at San Padre. Caprice is my routine. I try not to walk the same route twice. The trip back from a place might take twice as long as the trip to a place, if only just to wander the back streets and to polish my sense of direction. I’d visit museums, old parts of the city, pristine business districts, washed-out slums, malls, parks, markets, anything heritage or unusual could warrant a trip. Or I might just go to visit Uncle Rolly and my cousin Chris near the University of Santo Tomas. Then I’d meet some friends for some nighttime fun.

Chinese New Year in Chinatown, Manila
During my first of 5 weeks in Manila, I put out feelers and found some cool get-togethers posted on Couch Surfing began as a way for travelers to connect with hosts who wanted to offer their extra sleeping space up for free to responsible, interesting characters from around the world who cross their threshold usually carrying a hiking pack, specialty foods from home, wisdom, art, or crazy stories from their travels. In Manila as elsewhere, Couch Surfing expanded to help actualize projects, businesses, or events.

Fun with Couch Surfers
I found a group of Manileños meeting at a venue called Sa Guijo to see an Indie band called Sheila and the Insects. Rather than work or school, Couch Surfing was the common ground, even though most of our group hadn’t surfed or hosted before. The band was decent, but my 5 companions were better. Each person had a different job - graveyard call center support person, finance advisor, waitress, security guy. They work their butts off most of the time, support their parents/children some of the time, and take one night per month to let Red Horse beer and a good band turn their world upside-down. Through each of them, I was introduced to many different groups of people, each with a similar story. And so, my time in Manila became one never-ending party. Every night was my friends’ one night to release and let their hair down! So many music shows, chains of bar-hopping, karaoke bars, and liters of Red Horse (the “extra strong” on the bottle is no joke). I think it’s laced with gin or something. It’s not a typical beer. I even joined a similar cast of characters for Chinese New Year celebrations and a little ultimate frisbee at the University of the Philippines.

Couch Surfing meets PATAS
I’m a jazz musician, and February happened to be the month of jazz in Manila. I went to a host of venues and made friends at every one. Snobbery aside, I was pretty disappointed with most of the shows. So I ended up filling in on keys or playing my own gigs because people wanted to hear jazz darn it! This place called 121 Allegro Bar was a good place to hang since they’re always looking for musicians and the organizer, Garch, shares some of my taste in music.

121 Allegro from the audience.
I picked up the guitar last year because a piano is hard haul around on foot. My style is more folk than rock, and more subtle than most, with some gentle plucked tunes. One night at 121, the band before me loved loud distorted sounds. My ears were blown and my acoustic guitar, Josephine, seemed completely out of tune no matter what I tried. I played through my ears empathizing with tone-deaf people. I was so thankful it was late, that the crowd had thinned before I took to the mic. Anyone left in the audience was too drunk to tell folk from funk anyway.

The Manila jazz scene is a funny mixture of expats and old locals. One guy was introduced as the man who has played every hotel in Manila. “Sarge” the bassist is a cool, old Pinoy who could have been picked up off the streets of New York in the ‘50s. He knows probably every tune in music history and shares love with everybody. I met him at one of the oldest jazz clubs in the Philippines called Merck’s Place. I stopped in on a random Tuesday and saw Merck, Sarge, and a couple of newbies backing up several different singers. One woman in the audience was a sort of organizer for Jazz Month. I saw her at almost every jazz show I went to in February, so I guessed I was catching the best shows. Another spot I played at was called Balete @ Kamias, a brand new venue with a Balete tree growing out of the property’s wall and slathered with Christmas lights. They had a solid PA system and a Casio, the best keyboard I’d played in Manila.

A street in Intramuros
The sights of Manila would have been something to behold 60 years ago. Structural Adjustment policies led to the flooding of Manila streets with job-seekers from around the country. Any Pinoy-Spanish architecture, art, and charm of Manila is a rare treat found only by the tenacious city wanderer with senses attuned to the frequency of half-buried beauty. Today, there are bleached-clean streets that branch out straight into slums, strands of radioactive-looking water that reach into the urban jungle, and old houses that share walls with skyscrapers. The more dilapidated an area, the warmer the people. Stressed, racing businesspeople, the people with jobs are the ones you feel pushing you from behind at the train station during rush hour. It seems no matter where you are, one can never be rich enough to glow with serenity or love towards the world around them. Ah, cities.

Moat at Intramuros
A short walk from Quiapo is Intramuros, which was once a defense garrison for the city, complete with draw bridges and moat. Horses still pull tourists behind them in carriages, there’s a cobblestone street or two, and some of the architecture is preserved, but the old energy is long gone, the ancestral character dissolved into the sprawling Manila character that infiltrated the thick walls. As I prepared to descend a ramp from the protecting wall, I snapped a photo of some pretty trees reaching overhead. Little did I know that walking up the ramp at that moment was a family from my hometown. 

Mommy, can we ride the carriage like Cinderella??? Sure kid.
Lancasterians Ho!
I heard the dad say something to his wife, and I picked out the accent immediately. Even more specific, I pegged his Latino-Lancaster accent. We have a style in my hometown. Lancaster, California is way out in the Mojave Desert. It's close enough to Los Angeles to have been touched by LA culture, but far enough to have its own flavor. This family was totally Lancasterian. I've driven on their street, Ave. P, many times. What a small world to meet them here on a centuries-old wall in the Philippines! They tried to make a date to meet when I got back home, but I had to break it to them that I don't plan to head home for many years still.

A taste of home
Imagine this synchronized to Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance"
Rizal Park may be Manila’s last open community space. The first time I went there was after dark, and there was a magnificent water show synchronized with lights, fire, and music. Really magnificent. If it was built to impress visitors, it reeled me in. I loved spending time in the gentle mist relaxing with strangers gaping; escaping.  The park is surrounded by the city-sponsored museums. There’s a huge play area for kids ($1 admission). There’s an awesome relief map of the Philippines with bridges over the ~100 sq. meter pond so you can look down at the many islands with major geographical locations identified. There are exhibits honoring the national hero, Jose Rizal. I even heard that the surrounding buildings aren’t allowed to build so high that they breach the tree-line (super subjective, but shows how important this space of greenery is as an escape from the city).

- Intermission -
There are fancy business and residential areas with some cool venues, including one with a late-night foodie tent. Tons of upstarts and well-known restaurants strut their stuff under the big tent until 4am. I met a white cheesecake guy whose fat-baker demeanor and wild sweet tooth reminded me of Wafels and Dinges. Cerveza Negra Cheesecake… Not a far cry from our Hoegaarden Ice Cream. This guy’s boyfriend was a beautiful bear of a Pinoy. These skyscraper-studded areas could compare with lots of similar North American city neighborhood, brewed coffee prices and property tax brackets to match.

A richer business section in Makati
Waterway protected by original Intramuros Fort
I walked the city and can’t remember a time I felt I had walked through a dangerous area. Maybe it’s that no matter where you are there are almost always mothers and children eager to say hello with a smile. Filipinos are opportunists, not violent. For its wealth disparity, it’s a much safer country than the United States. For one thing, hardly any weapons are available in the Philippines. Some urban survival techniques: I always had my camera and whatever else I needed for the day in a little string backpack, and I usually walked swinging my steel water bottle at my side. I always walked like I’d walked that street a million times and knew exactly where I was going (90% chance I’d never set foot to cement there before). I generally don’t have my camera out so as not to give incentive to a thief, but I don’t like to take pictures anyway. It seems to interrupt a moment, feels like I’m taking something from whatever is in the image, and I wouldn’t take a photo of an indigenous community or slum because without an already established relationship with those people, it’s like making a tourist attraction out of people’s lifestyles.

Guarding an old building in Intramuros
 That said, I did walk through some very poor areas. Sometimes the homes would hover seemingly without supports over the disgusting water of some canal. Other times, streams of people would appear and disappear from pitch-black, shoulder-width tunnels that reminded me of ant hives. Young children darted amongst the legs of adults. School isn’t even an option for the kids in these neighborhoods. As I was walking down a particularly narrow street, a teen-aged girl steps out from one of these tunnels wearing a brand new, bright blue dress and looking so radiant the Disney princesses would’ve been jealous. Her entourage of family and friends were tossing complements at her and I could almost see their words falling from above like flowers. For once, I wasn’t the person people noticed. I passed by unnoticed with their collective emotions etched into my memory. “Princess in the Slum”… New folk ballad?

Gigantic CCP, straight out of Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy or something
I wandered over to the Cultural Center of the Philippines to see the musical instruments in a museum space on the top floor, courtesy of ex-First Lady Imelda Marcos. That day only, there were auditions happening for the Manila Film Festival producers, which is a huge event. I got roped into doing an audition, thinking it might be fun and hey, I’d never acted on film before. Figured I was a shoe-in because I was the only white guy there, and several directors did take my photo and name/number. But nothing came of it in the end. 

The Madrigal Singers
Inside the Main Auditorium
Regardless, it was a fun day, and the instruments were incredible, demonstrating some influence from major trade routes back in the day – mostly Indonesia, India, and China. I bought tickets for the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra which gave its 40th anniversary performance a few days later. Even the Phil-Phil (sorry, couldn’t help it) can’t take itself too seriously. Such a Western art couldn’t shackle the Filipino spirit. Goofy changes of seating, quirky jokes, and even Filipino time were rampant at this show. Loved it, and loved the relatively new French conductor. A handful of the musicians there had been members of the orchestra since its inception. I would’ve loved to chat with them about their experience.  The performance could’ve been a little better, but I couldn’t complain for having spent $2.50 to see the country’s premier orchestra.

Ballet Philippines
Pasinaya Dance Troupe
Later in my visit, the Pasinaya Festival was held at the Cultural Center (CCP). It’s the largest multi-arts festival in the Philippines, more than 200 performances over the course of one day. I saw traditional and modern dance troupes, folk arts, the national Ukulele group, a solo vibraphonist, Ballet Philippines, performance art and paintings in the hallways, and the Madrigal Singers, an amateur a capella choir that wins awards all over the Philippines. Every act was fantastic, but I think the Madrigal Singers were my favorite. I met up with some Couch Surfers after the fact, and the lead soloist from the Singers was in the group! Totally cool guy around my age with an incredible vocal range. He taught himself how to sing, and always put off auditioning thinking he wouldn’t get in. Now he’s touring the world with this amazing group. The whole day is meant to be accessible to anyone, and for people earning meager pesos, it meant $1 for the whole day’s events. I even got some Wintermelon tea from the Bhuddist temple’s food stall and learned that they serve free vegetarian food on the weekends there! Never did get to try it, unfortunately.

Dancing under the main awning
Uncle Vic and Marc Velasco at the Hobbit House
Another of my uncles is a folk musician in Manila. I’m noticing that half-assed doesn’t seem to be a gene that runs in my family. Uncle Vic is an incredible musician, and he plays with the best. I had trouble coordinating with Uncle Rolly and my cousins to catch Uncle Vic at his regular Sunday night gig, so I just decided to show up on my last Sunday in town. He was playing duo with Marc Velasco, a classical guitarist and folk musician whose “Ordinary Song” hit it huge. The venue was the Hobbit House, a huge Lord of the Rings-themed restobar that provides employment for midgets, who would have a lot of trouble finding work almost anywhere else. Sure the imported and even local beers were a little pricey, but I was so stoked to see my uncle play such amazing music. I couldn’t keep him from picking up my tab either. I wanted the music to never end, I was so enthralled and impressed. Thanks for such a special night Uncle Vic!

Hobbit-hole entrance to the Hobbit House
I would typically be out on the town six nights out of the week and would rest on the seventh. Felt like the Red Horse God – hangovers and everything. I’d take some time between events and on the seventh day to ride the stationary bicycle and work out at the gym on the first floor of the condo complex. Then I’d cool off and swim some laps in the pool. I’d eat a little bit at home, but beer and peanuts were basically my diet for a month. I’d never done any kind of city partying in my life, usually because it was so expensive. Here, I’d had the chance to see tons of shows, meet lots of people, visit family, see the sights, and drink myself silly. I think I’m done. As I write recall my time in Manila months later, I’m in such a different space of serenity and wellness that it’s hard to imagine I actually did all of this stuff!

Everyone talked about this sunset the next day -
even Manila can't avoid natural beauty
I decided to go up and help with a project in the Cordillera Mountains at the end of February. I’d stay with Doctor Dani in Baguio and see the Festival of Flowers before heading to the project. I said goodbye to Uncle Rolly, Chris, Jojo, and the puppies and caught the 5am bus up into the mountains. Nature, clean water, clean food, clean energy, clean air, here I come!