Moving Layers of Manila

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.

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Walking alongside many creatures

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.

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Outside of the Inside, Trinoma, Manila

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.

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“McView” –  Source: David Hoffmann @davidhoff_mann

 

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.

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Layers of mobility, Manila

A breezy ride or a hidden camera: Tricycles in Manila

Tricycles are like little beetles that scatter around, breaking speed limits, winding in and out of traffic and on and off the sidewalks of Manila. Wherever you look, you will see them. They are the tiny, colourful bubble-like machines. If you don’t want to look, wherever you are, you will still hear them. They have those squeaky sounding motors that teenagers use on their mopeds… That’s the only way I know how to describe that musical sound…

In fact, in Philippine cities, they are the most popular form of public transport. Apparently, each city has its own version. Some form part of standard routes and others can be hired privately. They are designed for about four people in addition to the driver but there don’t seem to be any laws about a maximum number. It’s great to see how many ways people find to fit their whole family into one tricycle.

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Tricycles in Tandang Sora, Quezon City, Manila

A breezy ride

There are two ways to ride a tricycle. Or at least, two conventional ways. Other options, I think, are limited to whether or not the driver trusts your balance on the ride.

My first choice has so far been to ride on the back of the bike. The heat of Manila is not easy to handle and I’d jump on anything that would give me a few seconds of breeze, even when its a warm one.

However, as I duly noted the other day, being a lady and riding on the back of a male driver can sometimes be seen as improper. So it’s possible the driver won’t actually let you do it, unless you are travelling with others. Luckily for me, I have only experienced this once, most other times I have been riding with other people. You can sometimes share a ride with another passenger too.

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Mounting the vehicle, Valenzuela City

It should only cost you about $15 Philippine pesos per person as tricycles do not go for great distances. If this is what you want, it’s better to ride the Jeepney that I mentioned in my last post.

So the breezy ride offers a lovely view of the street as you observe whatever happens behind you. You also get a little adrenaline rush every time the tricycle overtakes anyone. Since you are sitting sideways with your legs hanging over the side of the bike, you feel the tip of your toes almost brush the wheels of the jeepney riding in the opposite direction as the tricycle squeezes in between the buses and cars.

The breezy ride is more about mind and body than about what you see. Yes you see a lot of things and take it all in very quickly. But you also hear things around you and are able to connect what you hear to what you see and smell. You can smile at people who look at you (I stand out a lot here, so mostly they look at me with curiosity, the same way I look at them). The breezy ride makes me feel more connected to the chaos of the street. I like chaos.

A hidden camera

Today I had to take the second option, that of riding inside the beetle (I am calling it that, it’s probably better referred to as the sidecar). This requires that you crouch down and slide into a rounded seat. It is low and you get the direct impact from the maneuvers that the driver makes. So if you drive on to the sidewalk, get ready to need a pillow to sit on for a couple of days.

As you are at the level of the sidewalk, you are up close to the road and if anything comes around or near the beetle you’ll probably hear it before you see it. This particular ride is usually full of surprises. It is particularly good for getting into a slightly intimate closeness with whomever is riding the beetle with you. Whether you like it or not.

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A view from the beetle

Again, the heat of Manila never goes away, so enjoy the sticky-ness, the amusing awkward-ness and relish the experience.

Today, my friend riding with me revealed a great thing about riding the beetle. The hidden camera. In fact, your hidden camera, if you like that sort of thing.

One of the things that I most enjoy about cities is observing the richness of their diversity. There are moments that I see things as I walk along, that I wish I could capture in my memory forever. It’s difficult to capture them with your camera, especially when you enjoy genuine moments rather than posed pictures.

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Walking home from school, Quezon City

Riding in the beetle allows you to be a hidden observer, and in a way, an almost hidden photographer. Cameras tend to  attract attention so i am not sure this is ever possible. Nevertheless, it is a rare advantage to be able to capture a genuine moment unaltered by your position as the observer.

Remember to feel the city

Having ridden both options, reflecting back, I have to say that the minute I took out the camera I forgot about taking in the smells, the bumps and swerves, the adrenaline and only thought about the picture I captured.

Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy photographs and love being able to capture those moments I mentioned earlier. But when given the choice, I’d chose the breezy ride over the hidden camera ride any day.

I realised that as much as I love my camera, it sets me apart from the city because the moment I take it out, I become the observer rather than the be-er.

A friend told me a great quote the other day (the same friend who showed me the hidden camera trick).

Nadie te quita lo bailado” – Spanish expression

In other words, no one can take away that, which you have already danced.

I thought about this the other day when I was sitting on the back of the bike, feeling the breeze and suddenly noticing a pungent smell emanating from the noticeably flooded river. Will I remember this smell when I leave this city in a few months? I can take all the pictures I want, but once I leave this city and look through the snap shots again, will I remember how the breeze felt when it blew my sticky, sweaty hair away from my face (I forgot about elegance a long time ago)? How it felt to meander through the cars with nervous excitement?

Not unless I actually took the chance to build these memories, not unless I danced, or in this case rode the city, not as an observer but as a part of it.

Riding the city: Manila, Philippines

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Vacaciones ConcienBiciate Album

“La bici es un gestor de cambios tanto personales como colectivos” [“The bike is a generator of change, both personal and collective”] – Interview with Natalia Eudocia Olivares, Moksha Journal

One of the things I most miss about my life in Colombia is my bike.

Every time I see a bike now I get a jolt of yearning deep down inside me and I want to get back to those streets. Winding through the traffic at 9 a.m. or gliding smoothly down the wet roads at 9 p.m., I always felt like I owned the city.

As if I was flying through and over it, completley free from time.

So I now realise how important this feeling is for me and why cycling has profound consequences on my general happiness. Being part of ConcienBiciate was a particularly important part of getting this experience and discovering this feeling, if you ever want to try it out.

Embracing fluidity…

Cycling is a way of experiencing the city. The relationship you have with the city changes once you get on a bike and ride it. You are not only riding your bike, you are riding your city. That is a beautiful thing.

Thinking about this got me thinking about mobility in the city more generally. How your experience shifts and changes radically according to the different ways you move through it. In fact, cities are so fluid that I feel that restricting myself from embracing this fluidity and being mindful about it would be a lost opportunity.

So I’ve decided to start a new series in this blog about the different forms of riding through the cities I discover and how my experience of these wonderful places shifts according to how I chose to move through them.

…with the Jeepney

The streets of Manila are chaotic, steaming, overheated and densely populated by cars, motorbikes, tricycles, buses, bikers, pedestrians, dogs and all forms of floating waste remnants.

I recently passed my driving test and I can assure you it is a rare thing to find a driver that follows any version of the ‘MSM’ (mirrors, signal & move off) routine we are drilled on in the UK. Most drivers move on and assume whatever is coming will move out the way and if they don’t, honking somehow magically solves the problem.

From this chaos, mainly coloured with different shades of grey either from the concrete or the colouring that the smog has left on the cars and buildings along the street, emerge the jeepneys or ‘jeeps’ as they are more commonly referred to.

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Brightly coloured with shiny lights and loud honks, jeepneys are a legacy from WWII. They have been re-designed from their original function as American army jeeps. Thousands of them roam the city, as they have become the main form of public transport and are constantly filled with passengers.

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If you are travelling for a distance of less than 4 km you have to pay 7 pesos (which is about USD $0.15 or £0.10).

Jeepneys line up by the side of the road at specific key locations and wait to be filled. So forget about schedules. Their drivers will shout or honk at you, in the hope that you will be their next customer.  If you are, and there is still space, the drivers will stick around optimistically hoping that the next passengers are just around the corner.

Dive in through the backdoor, crouch down as you walk down the middle and slide in the furthest forward possible to squeeze in to a seat. By a seat I mean a tiny space on a side-like bench.

The best view of the city when on a jeepney is through the back. Try looking through any other side or front window and you’ll find yourself getting neck ache within about 20 seconds. Add this to the fact that you will be squeezed in to a very tight space in 35*C and it can be a very uncomfortable experience.

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Instead, try and sneak your seat by the back door where you can get a little more breeze, entertain yourself by observing what is happening on the street behind the jeep and enjoy being able to see the person sitting across from you. You could even strike up a conversation with them as Philippinoes are some of the friendliest people in the world (according to every guidebook and based on personal experience) and in Manila they mostly speak a good level of English to fit your attempted Tagalogish.