Brief Encounters on the Mean Streets of Manila

So, I consider myself a below-the-surface, what’s-round-that-corner, what-would-happen-if kind of traveler.

I’m not content to accept what’s presented at face value. I don’t travel to places solely looking for a tourist experience, nor do I typically seek the comforts of multi-star hotels, English menus and familiar western experiences. I want to get off the beaten path, away from the normal places where the tourists, foreigners and expats hang out.

What follows are a collection of random encounters during my travels to Manila, the capital of the Philippines. I write about them because I think it tells a part of a larger story of things that happen in the developing world, sometimes at odds with what we’re fed through the media. These encounters are not representative of the entire country or city, but happened to me nonetheless.

The reality of the situation was apparent; I was the outsider in an alien place where foreigners ought not to be. Move on.

Manila is the most densely populated city on earth. People from all over the Philippines come to Manila looking for work where the minimum wage is 466 pesos per day — about 10 American dollars. Throughout the country 28 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line and the problems are exacerbated by one of the highest birth rates in Asia.

After a day at Makati — one of the more western areas of the metropolis — I had had my fill of mega-malls, happy hours and steakhouses. Enough already, I rarely frequent these places at home, why would I do it in another country? I decided to jump on the MRT (light rail), get off at a random station and just start walking. I got off at Taft Avenue Station, which intersects with the LRT heading west. I had descended into chaos… score! The heat was stifling, the air thick with exhaust fumes and smells of street food as the masses pulsated in and out of the station.

I walked around for a few hours taking it all in. Feeling the effects of dehydration I located a hole-in-the-wall with a dozen or so tables, a karaoke machine and a beer cooler. I ambled in and ordered a litro of Red Horse beer. The guy placed it on the table, popped it open and handed me a glass and a bucket of ice… I think it was 60 pesos, roughly 1.40USD. Almost a third of the price of a bottle of beer in Makati, and a hell of a lot more fun. They seemed intrigued to have a white guy in there drinking, they even moved the fan to cool off big whitey! This place was pretty local, I hadn’t seen a white face since I jumped on the MRT and there certainly weren’t any in this joint..

Needless to say, this became my watering hole for the duration of the trip and I have returned several times since. Later, I learned that this area is part of Pasay City on the border of Manila proper. Pasay can get pretty sketchy when the sun goes down, home to a red light district which caters to the working class. Each visit to to the place results in some bizarre encounter with humanity.

The Huckster/Con-man/Tout

These guys are a dime a dozen. Standing on the corner waiting for a break in the traffic so I can cross the street, an older gentleman sidles up to me and starts the “where are you from?” game. “USA,” I reply. He asks if I know his relative in San Diego. “Ah no, I don’t.” Anyway, I have plenty of time, so I entertain him for a while to see where this is going. His first offer is to take me to some place with “very beautiful ladies” who will do “anything”. I decline. He insists, and goes on about how close it is, and how he can walk me there, and we can just look… I decline again.

He then gives up and pulls out his wallet and shows me a picture of a woman he claims is his wife. He says he has been married for 40 years and then pulls out another picture of a girl about eight years old and tells me it’s his daughter. I ain’t buying the daughter thing, as this guy is at least 60. In short, he tells me his wife has cancer and he can’t afford the medicine.

He then proceeds to pull out some gold chain that belongs to his wife – but he needs to sell it to buy her medicine. He is prepared to give me a really good deal. Yeah, ok. Decline. Next a ring comes out of his pocket and it happens to be his wife’s wedding ring, same deal. Anyway, I am thinking this guy has no game at all; his wife will definitely die of cancer due to his inability to separate me from my money! Last, he starts on the daughter, and says he has no money to send her school, and could I help him out as it his sick wife’s wish that she go to school… Decline.

This little adventure had run its course. I thanked him for his time and walked away. The next day when I was back in Makati I saw him and he smiled and asked me again if I needed anything, a lady? I laughed, he laughed, and we went our separate ways. The guy had absolutely no game or maybe I am just a skeptical bastard. I could not imagine anyone would ever fall for his cons, but I guess some do or he wouldn’t be regularly pounding the pavement.

The Transvestite

Commonly referred to as bakla, there are many transgender or feminine men in the Philippines. Most of the folks in South East Asia don’t get too worked up over the whole issue like they do in the West. I’ve knocked around the area long enough that I take them with a grain of salt, they don’t really bother me, they are just part of the landscape.

I was walking down EDSA (street) in Pasay when a bakla approaching from the opposite direction stopped in my path and started talking to me. The gist of the conversation turned to all the things he/she could do to me. I laughed, she laughed. She bummed a smoke and we chatted while she kept up her sales pitch. I was a bit curious how ‘he’ had come to be ‘she’ and what her new life was all about.

She claimed to be living in a rented room nearby after being kicked out by her father due to being a bakla. She was short on rent and food and all the rest of it. Anyway, she finally concluded that I was not going to take her up on her offer to go to her room and asked for some money to eat. I declined to part with pesos but offered to buy her something.

A block down the street was a little take-away burger joint called the Burger Machine with a few stools on the sidewalk. I ordered her two mini burgers for less than a dollar. She thanked me and we continued chatting. She was 20 years old and had been working the streets since she was 18. I asked her if she was concerned about HIV/AIDS. She shrugged it off, telling me that she never uses condoms and doesn’t worry about it. She said if it happens, it happens, there was really nothing she could do about it because her customers refuse to use condoms. She thanked me again and said she needed to go find a customer because she had to earn. It was just another day in the life of a bakla prostitute.

The Conductor

I was well into my second Litro of Red Horse when two guys walked in and asked if they could share my table. The place had filled up with a mixed crowd and people were feeding the karaoke machines a steady stream of 10 peso coins and belting out tunes. Luckily the volume was not set to the normal Filipino level, which can only be described as get-me-out-of-here loud.

The guys worked for the bus company down the block, one was a driver and the other a conductor. They made a couple of runs per day between Manila and Batangas and they were done for the day. After buying rounds for a few hours the bus driver had something to do back at the office and thanked me for the beers. About this time the conductor started talking about getting a girl and suggested we go to a local karaoke joint. I knew that nothing good could come of this plan. They were full of drunk pinoys and working girls. I had no intention of invading the local’s playground without a trusted wingman, even then it would be a bit sketchy.

I was working on my last beer when a thirty-something lady walked in with some teenage girls. I thought maybe the younger girls were dressed a little provocatively, but it was pretty damn hot, even as the evening was wearing on. They were drinking coke and singing karaoke and I thought that mom had brought out her daughter and friends for a little entertainment. Well, Mr Conductor quickly shattered that illusion when he asked me which girl I liked. He wanted to go talk to one of them for me. Whoa! I waved him off but he persisted. I told him those girls were too young. He laughed and said, “no problem”.

As I finished my beer and paid the bill, he was busy talking to the girl and the 30-something lady. On the way out he stopped by and thanked me for the beer and casually told me the girl was 17. How do you respond to that? I wished him luck and watched the girl follow him out a minute later.

The Troll and the 16-Year-Old

“Hey you, hey, hey…” The old woman called out from the shadows. I had a pretty good idea how this was about to go down but I stopped as she approached and decided to play it out. She was a gnarly old wench, disheveled, short and squat with a crook in her back – a real troll. She started with the usual. “You want lady? I have young lady? Young girl, she’s only 16.” As fast as I replied no, the troll summoned the girl in rapid-fire Tagalog and she emerged from the shadows. It was obvious that this girl was young but she appeared confident as she joined the conversation.

The old troll was offering her up for 1,000 pesos. I turned to the young girl and told her she was too young to be doing this. The troll continued to do all the talking and said it was OK, “she have baby already”. Wow, I was having a tough time following this logic trail. Anyway, the troll dropped the price to 800 pesos. She wanted me to take this girl into this rundown hotel that rented rooms by the hour for 200 pesos.

I guess the westerner in me should have been shocked but the scenario unfolding around me occurs on a routine basis in these parts. Finally, the young girl spoke and started pleading with me. She claimed she needed bus fare back to her province to see her baby. There was desperation in both of them and the troll blurted out: “OK mister, you take her for 600” (14USD). I declined once again. I considered just giving the young girl some pesos to get her off the street, but I knew that it would probably all end up in the troll’s pocket and they would still be there waiting for the next passerby.

As I walked away there was a lot of shit going through my mind. I felt sorry for the young girl. Was she that desperate for money to be out prostituting herself? Was she a victim of trafficking? I will never know the answers to those questions. But I do know that I really wanted to go back and smash the old troll in the facet. But the reality of the situation was apparent; I was the outsider in an alien place where foreigners ought not to be. Move on.

Bone-crunching poverty drives some people to do some whack things. But for as many that fall into the flesh trade, there are many more that don’t. There is a huge sex tourism market throughout South East Asia and prostitution in its various forms is pretty common. The do-gooders, NGOs and myopic travel bloggers pump out a steady stream of propaganda blaming much of the trade on foreigners and sex-pats. That is pretty much a crock of shite. I won’t deny that there are areas that cater exclusively to foreigners. However, the organic demand/activity in these countries far exceeds that which occurs in the foreigner dominated areas, and from what I have observed is a helluva lot more depraved. I am pretty sure the old troll pimping the young girl was not standing out there waiting for some white guy to come along, as I’ve never seen more than a handful of foreigners in this area in all my visits.

Note from Author: Readers should not take this piece as an indictment of the Philippines. I have captured some random encounters that occurred in places most travelers never visit and they are not representative of the country as a whole. The Philippines is a great place to visit with astounding natural beauty and warm people where English is widely spoken.


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