Manila is a city formed of multiple layers…
A layer for motor creatures
Whatever lies beneath the ground remains unknown to me, although I sometimes get a glimpse of it as I pass over open drains or sinking tarmac.
At the ground level, the fumes from the traffic cloud your vision, although you can still see the once colourful, but now greyed, jeepneys, shop houses, cars and publicity boards. Perhaps the one thing that is constantly clean and of striking colours are the clothes that Filipinos wear. All the same, each cloud of new emission fumes pumped in front of you consistently disrupts your vision of the city.
The sounds around you are a mixture of loud screeching engines, swerving wheels, beeping drivers and music. There is always music playing in the distance.
Occasionally, the smell of fried pork, chicken and calamari accompanied by a complementary cocktail of Toyo (soya sauce) and coconut vinegar taint the air. From many houses, shop houses particularly, escapes a pungent scent of dried salted fish. As I walk along the street and accidentally inhale these scents, escaping through open doors and windows, I get a slight migraine. To add to the experience, the open garbage bags, with clouds of hovering flies over them, also reek.
The combination of these multiple smells can make your nose go numb.
At this level you walk alongside all forms of creatures, both human and non-human. There is one type of creature that dominates, the motor creature. If there is no space for it in the lanes of the roads, it will mount the pavement. So all human and other non-motor creatures should be careful.
The dominance of the motor-creature seems to dilute as you, the human creature, ascend to the second layer of the city.
A layer for human creatures
This layer is formed of a network of tunnels and bridges. They meander high over the tarmac, traffic-congested, streets and through the air-conditioned malls, of which there are many. If you wanted to, you could spend an entire day walking through sections of the city, having only touched the ground level twice, on entry and on departure from this layer.
This layer has somewhat lighter air, breezier weather and the scents are less pungent than those of the first layer. Here on this level, you can recognise the shampoo that the lady who has just walked past you has used, despite the ever-present scent of fumes.
You can also hear the muttering words of a young boy who approaches you, asking for some change. You can hear the quiet music from the vendors’ phone as you walk past their display of multicoloured phone covers laid out on plastic sheeting.
On this level you rarely stop to look around, except after hours. During the day, people rush past you fully relishing the freedom to walk without the risk of being mulled over by motor creatures.
A layer for gliding through the cityscape
Then, there is a third layer, a layer which allows you to glide through the city, overlooking the layers beneath you as they diverge and converge. Overlooking the human and non-human creatures that encounter each other in the first two layers, the essence of the city’s serendipity.
From this layer, you can look across the cityscape at eye-level. The concrete forest is frequently disrupted by the tall palm trees that spring up and colour the scape with a diverse range of greens.
But to be at this level, you must access entrance to an giant, electric, man-made creature, the ‘MRT’ or Manila Metro Rail Transit System. Within this creature, there is little or no breeze, except that coming from the air-conditioning vent on the roof of the creature. Here the scents are bland. There is perhaps a lingering smell of perfume from the most recent passenger that just walked out or from the creature that sits next to you. But both scents are quickly diffused or blanked out by the cold or the AC, I’m not sure which.
So at this level, there are fewer distractions. Your nose is not numb but perhaps a little bored, having been disposed of its role.
As your eyes scan the city and then look down at those dwindling in the lower layers, you might get a guilty feeling of superiority from being able to look down on the city as if you own it. A feeling you might not be too open about.
The third level is where this journey ends. Any higher and I might disconnect from the city.