I’ve been here before, this lounge and lobby in Manila. New World Hotel in Makati City is likely the most exotic hotel I’ve ever stayed at. I wish you could see the leather-covered elevator walls, the marble floors, the chocolate buffet or the saunas. My imagination is captured by every foreign accent, every business suit and every man who walks in with his hired escort. I create stories in my mind of who these people are and what they do for a living. They are all James Bond in disguise and I am a secret observer recording their international mysteries.
Fresh mango juice is at my side. Fresh mango juice from the Philippines is a much sweeter, smoother version of almost any other juice I’ve ever had. The tropical climate here allows the mangos to grow year round and always within arms reach, whether from a street vendor or a world-class restaurant. There are no forced flavors, nothing reconstituted or dehydrated for a thousand miles to travel. Pulp clings to the glass as I taste colors and health in this tall cup of God’s juice.
It’s the Chinese New Year here. Neighboring China overshadows the Philippines economically and in this way, culturally. A small dragon parade snakes its way through a local market. The celebrants who inhabit this elaborate, kaleidoscopic puppet sit on each other’s shoulders to make the dragon’s head reach well into the sky. The vendors peddling their wares wait earnestly for the dragon to stop at their booth and bless them with another year of luck. Fortune, for good or ill, might be as much a vehicle for civil religion as the Catholicism planted by the Spanish colonizers.
I passed miles of rice paddies Sunday on the way to Pampanga, a province in the Central Luzon region. Water buffalo tilled the earth as their owners drudge the plows behind them. The fields are intentionally flooded from the local waterways so the young seedlings can set without fear of pests or weeds. Rice will feed this country more than any other crop. McDonald’s won’t accompany their nuggets with french fries as much as they will a large ball of sticky rice.
My Saturday morning started in a slum. Tall skyscrapers overshadow the squatters and there has never been a starker contrast between poor and prosperous. Haircuts, eye exams, prescription meds are rationed. Inside the adjacent 200 square foot Catholic mission, dead teeth are being pulled from their vacuous sockets. Thankfully, Novocaine is administered earlier. Inside of two minutes in this shanty town I am desperately fighting the tears back. I tell myself ‘be strong’ but I don’t know for who or what really. A man bathes in front of me, a little boy urinates beside me and a little girl plays by the constant flow of water that is washing it all down the street. I argue in my head about the role of choice in socio-economic status. Perhaps it’s just to distract my conscience though.
Large existential questions loom over me in these moments. In such a large world it is easy to feel so awfully small. I make meaning of these adventures one day, one feeling and one person at a time. My heart is full and I long for home. My tiny corner of the world beckons and 24 hours of flying is all that separates me from those people who I am desperately in love with. I’ve carried each one of you with me. I have had make-believe conversations in my head of how you might experience such things. I’ve thought of how you would tamper my cynicism, laugh at my silliness or just be a comforting presence in fleeting moments of loneliness.
I’ve been here before, this lounge and lobby in Manila. Her sights, smells and sounds inform my exploits. It is almost time to go. I’m closing the computer lid now. I’m now going to go walking and see if I can find somewhere I’ve never been before.