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Published: November 2nd 2008
I close the door behind me, leaving the other inhabitants of the house behind, silently glued to the computer or the television, munching on bowls of rice. A few steps forward and I reach the gate. Open, close, and I am out on the street of a guarded compound cut off from the hustle and bustle of the main street. None of the houses would look out of place in a council estate in England and almost every one has two cars outside it. Two minutes and I am out of the compound and onto the main street, every imaginable form of transport chugging out fumes that make the air stink and wishing that all the other drivers on the road would magically disappear in a puff of exhaust smoke, allowing them the unimaginable luxury of a swift arrival at their destination.
I walk for ten minutes past road side restaurants, small shacks with a few plastic tables and chairs inside and large metal cauldrons lined on tables in front of them. Customers lift off the lids, inspect what is inside and if they like the look they order a tiny portion with a large bowl of rice. I arrive at steps that lead up to a bright pink and blue-coloured pedestrian walkway that stretches for at least a kilometer connecting various different streets in the area. I ascend and immediately see that behind many of the restaurants stretch vast shanty towns of miniscule houses constructed from wood, plastic, cardboard and corrogated iron. I watch a man bent double emerge from the hole in the front of the box in which he lives, and, coughing and spluttering, stagger out of view, deeper into the slum.
I continue along the elevated pedestrian walkway, the streets bellow crammed with motorbike taxis and horrendously overcrowded jeepneys, vehicles that were originally US military jeeps used in WW2 but which are now probably the world's most flamboyantly decorated form of public transportation. I pass myriad representations of different social classes, from the rag-wearing beggar stumbling along with palms outheld to the suit-clad businesswoman clutching shopping bags with labels such as Armani and Gucci splayed across them.
I descend at a bus stop, many of the crowd surrounding it holding cloths over their mouths and noses to avoid inhaling too much of the polluted air. Attached to the nearest wall is a fluorescent pink urinal and a young man with a rucksack, perhaps a student, peeing into it right there in the middle of the street. After five minutes the bus arrives and instead of a queue a rugby scrum is formed, everyone driving forward in a desperate attempt not to be left without a seat.
The journey lasts thirty minutes and by the end of it the slums have disappeared for good and have been replaced by towering high-rise buildings, glitzy shopping malls and the shining windows of five-star hotels. This is Makati, the business district; its malls were the first place that my Filipino housemates had shown me round upon arrival in Manila. I get off the bus and, after having my bag searched, enter a mall through the glass doors and walk past fast food restaurants serving cheap food from every known nationality and ethnicity other than Filipino.
Out at the other end I enter the metro, buy my ticket and step on a train, only to be called off, told that I had boarded the female wagon and redirected to another carriage. I get off at the next stop and exit the metro at a small street market where within the space of a minute a hundred people try to sell me cheap watches, clothes, meat on sticks, fried bananas, fried boiled eggs and a variety of other fairly unappealing products. I walk for five minutes, cross the street and enter another metro station and this time I ride for about ten stops.
Back out on the street an old man puffing and panting on his tricycle taxi manages to gasp, "You wanna go to Intramuros, Sir?" He must have read my mind. I could easily have walked to the walled district, the original fortress / town built by the Spaniards in the sixteenth century, but I decide to take a break and let the old guy earn some money. "Only twenty pesos," he tells me. Way above the standard fare but who am I to bargain with him over a few pence? I get on and for ten minutes we struggle along the streets much slower than walking pace. "Twenty pesos!" he keeps shouting as we crawl along. "Very good price, very long distance!" Then his cry changes to "Thirty pesos, very cheap!" and is repeated several times. I don't argue when he drops me off just inside the high stone walls - it is only a matter of a few pence and I doubt the poor man earns very much in his average day traveling at that speed.
I am headed for the Visa Extension Office but it has been an hour and a half since I left home and I am tired. Before braving what is undoubtedly going to be a nightmare of queues, forms and bureaucracy I decide to go for a stroll on top of the walls. I walk for half an hour, observing life on the streets below. Two street kids fight and dance with long poles before a policeman arrives, takes out his own stick and beats them away. A crowd of older children in black and white uniforms crowd round an ice cream vendor who scoops slush out of a bucket for them and deposits it in cups. An elderly, overweight, red-faced Western man sits at a table with a young Filipino girl who surely cannot yet be in her twenties. I pass a huge, old Spanish Cathedral and soon find myself looking out onto the Pasig River. Down below me, on a long, thin strip of polystyrene on which sits a collection of items of garbage pulled from the water, floats a young boy less than ten years old, paddling with a sandal in one hand and the top of a plastic container in the other. He looks up, his young, feral eyes connecting with mine. I wave and he waves back before getting back to paddling and continuing his work. Most Madrilenos cannot swim and I am sure he is no exception, just one mistake away from capsizing and being sucked down into those filthy, brown waters.
I arrive at the Visa Extension Office, passport in hand. My singlet has a large sweat stain on it from the walk in the scorching midday sun, my shorts are causing me discomfort as they rub against my legs and a sole is already flapping off one of my newly-bought sandals. I am hot and bothered but determined, ready to take whatever they throw at me. As I attempt to enter, a guard puts his hand: "Sorry, Sir, no shorts, sandals or singlets allowed inside."
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