Manila Vanilla

What it's like to be a U.S. Fulbright scholar, basketball player, journalist, and the whitest man in Metro Manila.

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Location: Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines

New Yorker by birth, shipped across the globe to the world of malls, shanty-towns, patronage, corruption, basketball and a curious burnt-toast smell that wafts around at dusk

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Advice to an American friend

This is a little different from my regular posts, but it feels right so let's give it a try. The following is copied from a Facebook message I sent to a college friend who just got transferred to the U.S. Embassy in Manila. He's been in the country for a month, and he's asking me for some pointers on living the good life in Pasay. OK everyone, let's not be suplado and make jokes about how that last sentence ended in an oxymoron. Here's to the good life ... in Pasay. Also, to any readers who live South, if you'd like to elaborate on my very basic suggestions, go for it and I'll pass them along to this guy. Enough explanation, here's the text of my letter:

Good to hear from you. The first month in Manila is tough. It's hard now for me to remember exactly what it was like, since I eventually felt so at home there. The good news is that in two years, you'll have a similar opportunity to know the city just as well.

Ahh Cuneta, how I love thee and thy "no spitting" signs.

I gotta say, I never expected the Embassy to put up people next to Cuneta. I lived all the way up in QC, on Katipunan Avenue near UP and Ateneo de Manila University, but I got around a lot and spent a significant amount of time the Buendia/Libertad parts of Pasay, mostly because I had to go to PBA games and practices at Cuneta. The league schedules fewer and fewer games there these days, but if you get a chance to go to one, jump at it, just so you can behold the exquisite mess that is the Astrodome. The hideous turquoise exterior is a pretty good indicator of what's inside. Cuneta has a ton of character. It was always worth the trip.

I don't know a ton about Pasay nightlife because I stayed so far north, but I bet you'll get to know your way around MOA pretty well. Yes, malls are tacky but I think it's better if you can just look at them as a fact of life and enjoy them for their luxuries -- reliable aircon, movie theaters, fancy food. Some of my favorite places to hang out were the grimy neighborhood beerhouses in Quezon City. Pasay is not quite as good a spot for these places -- from what I saw, a much higher proportion of the beerhouses around Libertad and Buendia doubled as whorehouses. However, normal people drink too, so I bet there are some places that just stick to beer, barbecue and cheesy music. Follow the students! The CCP Complex, on Buendia and Roxas Boulevard, has upscale but still authentic restaurants and bars, and the Cinemalaya film festival at CCP in July is great. Upstairs at the CCP Complex you will find Brad's, a kind of crappy restobar but one I feel great personal attachment to, because I played a scummy American named Brad in a telenovela once, and because they sell something called "Brad's Burst," which aside from the nasty innuendo, is one of the weirdest meals I've ever heard of. It's a giant puto filled with dinuguan and topped with pineapple chutney. Puto and dinuguan go together, but not usually encased one inside the other.

You're south, so you're near the original Dampa in Parañaque. It's near the domestic airport. Dampa refers to any large wet market where you can buy fresh fish, then have it cooked for you. You can find them all over, but the original is supposedly the best. I never went, but if it's better than the one at Farmer's in Cubao and the one at Greenhills, then it is fucking great. Dampa is really my favorite place to eat in the country. 

What else... You're probably walking distance from Cartimar Market, which is famous for selling exotic pets. Now, I know what you're thinking, but it's not as intense as it sounds. Given the way other things are peddled in Manila -- DVDs, abortion elixirs, votive candles, flesh -- I thought they'd be selling giraffes and tigers and all kinds of wild stuff. It's a tamer scene than that, which is definitely a good thing, for the animals and society as a whole. Still, it's a lot of fun to walk around looking at birds and fish you've never seen before. Plus, the other side of Cartimar has some of the best bootleg NBA throwback jerseys I've seen in the country, as well as some authentic-looking G-Unit knock offs, if you're in the market for that kind of stuff. 

Man, what else... You got me riled up here. Well, I probably got myself riled up. Anyway, get out there and explore. Be careful, but don't be too careful. I walked around alone all the time, all over the place, and never had problems. Besides, your fists are deadly weapons. I remember this from France. Really, there's so much to see and do. It's great fun.

Finally, more good news. I got a book deal and I'll be coming back to Manila to complete my manuscript. I have to finish off a job I took here in the meantime, but expect to see me back in my adopted native habitat in June!



Monday, March 09, 2009

Guest blogging at Ricoexplainsitall

In a previous life, I was a hardcore hip hop head. I was an intense fan. I had Eminem's pre-Dre albums. I had dubs of battles on West Coast radio stations. I went to M.O.P. shows in the mid-1990s and tried to have a good time without scuffing anyone's Timberlands. Those days are mostly behind me, although even today I mostly listen to rap music, only now I make room for OPM, as anyone who's heard me sing Narda knows. My friend Rico asked me to write a short piece on the Notorious B.I.G., this being the 12th anniversary of his death. Read it here. R.I.P. B.I.G.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

More Pacman silliness

Writing about Manny Pacquiao time after time feels profoundly unoriginal, but unfortunately the Pacman just keeps doing funny and interesting stuff. He may be the pound-for-pound king of boxing, but even outside the ring the quirks of his personal life stack up against any other celebrity. In fact, although Pacquiao is probably my favorite boxer, I think I might be an even bigger fan of his extracurricular hijinks, which include playing for his Liga Pilipinas basketball team, running for political office and recording monster ballads.

What do you mean Princeton doesn't have a cockfight pit?

Now, we can add framing a Ph.D. to hang next to the Santo Niño in his living room. Last week, Manny Pacquiao, world lightweight champion, became Dr. Emmanuel D. Pacquiao when Southwestern University in Cebu gave him an honorary doctorate in the humanities. This is certainly a little goofy, but not the travesty some bloggers have made it out to be. I don't think awarding Manny an honorary degree that he hasn't come close to earning (in an academic sense, at least) spells doom for Philippine higher education. 

Besides, what other prominent Filipinos receive honorary documents? Politicians, businessmen, taipans and generals, probably, and have they really done more for the country than Pacquiao? Disgraced ex-president Joseph "Erap" Estrada received one from Ateneo. The long "public service" careers of politicians would be more aptly described as "public bilking." Philippine tycoons have to get their hands dirty to make and maintain their fortunes. Shadows of human rights abuses loom over any military man. People from all these sectors have also done good things for the country, but I want to emphasize that the troubles of Philippine society compromise the ethics of any person in a position of power, and we'd be overlooking a very messy, complicated system of moral compromises and lesser evils to just say that they are better people than Pacquiao, a superstar athlete without much formal education. At least Pacman has provided a decade of uplifting beatdowns of Mexican boxers, that have united and delighted the nation. When he gets into congress in 2010, he can complete the circle and become the pound-for-pound king of government graft.

We should also point out that bestowing dubious honorary degrees upon boxers is not a Filipino invention. Here in the United States, Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and, you guessed it, "Iron" Mike Tyson have all received honorary doctorates. Pacquiao will have to work really hard to distinguish himself as the least deserving member of that group. Of course, with the possibility of a long career in politics awaiting him, Pacquiao has a chance to do that! Kayang-kaya mo, Manny!