Under the volcano
Bangkok: The absurdly swish Intercontinental, where the breakfast buffet is all you need to eat all day, and flunkeys hang around to do nothing but open doors or press the lift button for you. A game to try and get to the door (or button) before they notice and do it for you. The skytrain and skywalks in the middle of an otherwise mostly characterless area of tower blocks, though with the odd feature. A Visit to A, a Buddhist monk whom I knew when he was doing postgraduate study in Cambridge: he is in the midst of organising a conference on Buddhist education. I go with him in a taxi to the University where it is being held where he has various fettling to do, and find myself doing the voiceover for a publicity video for the university being put together for the event.
The ADB 'resident mission' in Thailand, and a two-day meeting including my presentation, which goes as well as may be expected. There is a free day left before flying to Manila and I meet up with K, brother of a former housemate, and his equally pretty girlfriend F. They take me to Koh Kret, described as an island in the river which you get a boat to with temples and street markets. It sounds great, yes? So it is, though not quite as amazing as it sounds as it is really just one large market of kitsch tat - not aimed as one might assume at tourists, of whom very few come, it being somewhat out of the way, but at locals, who cannot get enough kitsch tat. One temple has some statues of random old monks - K thinks they are old sangharajas, though isn't sure, but anyway the pair of them are quite happy to prostrate themselves before them whoever they are, before K shakes and rattles a tin of sticks, open at one end, until one comes out. It's a divining method and using the number on the stick thus indicated he selects a fortune from various tear-off ones printed ones on a wall. (The number gave him a rather poor sounding fortune, so he elects not to tear it off.) But far odder was the other little shrine, with two near life-size statues of laughing boys of about 10. Here there are not even the misused trappings of Buddhism. Near the boys is a stack of bottles of red Fanta, and by them is a crate with bottles of the same. K&F solemnly kneel down and wai and touch the ground in the usual way. That concludes the proceedings, but apparently they have made wishes and if the laughing boys grant your wish, you are supposed to return to the shrine (or perhaps to some other of their shrines, which I gather are common) and buy them a bottle of red Fanta, of which they are inordinately fond. I wonder for how long the same bottles remain in circulation between the pile for sale and the crate of bottles that have been donated to the grateful boys.
Manila: When you arrive at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila, and as you stand in a dingy queue waiting to go through passport control, an enormous sign on the wall carries a stern warning: NAIA IS A NO 'WANG WANG' ZONE. PLEASE FALL IN LINE. CCTV MONITOR IN USE. As you stand in line, nervously wondering when you will be in Naia and whether you are committing wang wang, you remember what you've heard of Manila: a horrible city of 10 million people, ten-lane freeways everywhere, road barriers and no crossings, no pavements, and ugly tower blocks, unrelieved by anything of character. At first glance it's true; at second glance, it's still true.
The Asian Development Bank, a huge fortified palace that is the workplace of 2000 people, for which a marble mountain must have been levelled to floor the corridors and elegant atria. Everyone is in unnervingly in suits, and I gabble a bit and between us and we go over time, but it seems not to have gone badly all told.
Taking the metro this evening I notice suddenly that of the 100-odd people in the carriage, only about 6 are men. Do men not take the metro or is there something special about the front carriage? (It is the latter, I discover later.) At Makati (having fought my way out of the mall where the metro decants you) I eat at a cafe on a small handkerchief-sized park, walk on a bit, and being diverted by an uncrossable road find the airy stock exchange plaza and a slightly more substantial triangular park with cafes along one side. Further along towards what seems to be the meeting point for hotels in the city I dive to the right down a neon-lit street which turns out to be the red light district, with girls and men and old women beckoning me inside at every door, usually marked 'table dancing' or similar. It presently fades into more of the pedestrian-unfriendly norm, forcing me to edge warily into a side road closed off to traffic with a gate. Suddenly in a totally different city, low-rise, mazy, and poor but respectable with houses and odd Catholic shrines and unexpected booths at windows. Soon I'm out of this reverse gated community onto a main road again: a bustle of activity through some gates over the road. There is a strip alongside the river which is being run as a kind of outdoor casino. Some people are sitting playing bingo; a sign says 'Block-out bingo, Saturday night. Prize: P7000 + 2 sacks of rice.' (P7000 is about 100 quid.) Various other funfair variants of casino games on brightly hand-painted boards. There is a kind of roulette where you put your money on one of six painted squares (or straddling them in various ways), and three huge dice are released down a ramp by pulling a string. The dice have colours on the faces and depending how they land, you double or lose your money. Another is a different roulette variant where, after people have bet on colours, a huge ball the size of a beach ball is released onto a big piece of netting over a board with a grid of coloured squares, each with a small hole in the middle. Eventually the ball will come to rest on one of these, but only after keeping you guessing for longer than seems plausible. At one stall people play for small amounts of money, while at another - admittedly not apparently with any custom - you can win bottles of ketchup ('catsup') and bags of crisps. There is a walkway going a small distance along the river - if 'river' were not a euphemism for the main city sewer this would be quite pleasant. Then there are people sleeping on pavements, including a bunch of young kids bonelessly lying on top of each other like puppies. Get back to a metro station on the right line (there are no interchanges or anything quaint like that - it is not what you would call an integrated transport system - witness the fact that no buses or trains of any kind serve the airport) just as it is closing, having missed the last train, and get a taxi back.
I'm left with two days to myself. A day out in Manila - looking for the parts worth visiting I take the light rail system. In the closest thing to an interchange you can alight at Cubao-Araneta and take a half-mile walk through two shopping malls, with a new skywalk joining them, and queue up again for tickets at Araneta-Cubao. In the comparatively swish modern station at Recto, there are windows from the entrance hall: to the north the slums, all corrugated tin and plywood and occasional breezeblock, and to the south a fairy-tale road with coloured umbrellas and street markets; mostly engines and engine parts, but also every kind of household good (one hand-written sign advertises 'dog soap'); coming out at a plaza with a grand cathedral or large church, the Basilika Ng Nazareno, with gaudy gold decorations and a functionalist concrete ceiling, and a row of confessionals like phone booths with people popping in and out; the street morphs into a food market, lots of fish and vegetables of unidentifiable kinds; getting slightly lost I ask directions and am sent down another street where a good twenty small kids are playing, relatively unsupervised but evidently safe, and a square has been chalked out on the road for some game; I come out at the bridge and turn right past the vast, handsome, pink, neoclassical POST OFFICE BVILDING, where from its size a thousand people must be employed in the various offices signed from the entrance hall, foreign mail, special delivery, money orders, post restante, etc; down along the river to the Intramuros, the old walled city. Until the war apparently Manila was a small and attractive old Spanish town with cobbled streets: it was almost completely flattened, 100,000 Filipinos being the collateral damage in the Battle of Manila between MacArthur and the Japanese. Parts of the walls remain, there are still a couple of short sections of cobbled streets, and the most important buildings have been restored, such as the Spanish fort. Suddenly there are pestilential rickshaw drivers everywhere with a spiel about taking you round the Intramuros - they can all quote the exact length and area and wave the same dog-eared pictorial map. (I make the mistake of accepting a brief ride from one of them, at some inflated price: it is not a particularly agreeable method of locomotion, as you are cramped and cannot see any of the alleged attractions that the driver is pointing out.) From the fort you can walk through the Intramuros and on to Rizal Park, another wonderful bright spot in the Manila gloom. A formally laid out park, chess piazza, lagoon, the wonderful statue of the Sentinel of Freedom - standing a monumental height, some 40ft, on a plinth another 6ft high, visible from a great distance. A huge golden-bronze young man in a loincloth and headband: he is watchful and at peace, but his hands rest lightly on the hilt of his sword, whose point is buried at his feet. It is powerful and beautiful: it sends a shiver down your spine. Then there is another lake with a 3D model of the Philippines rising from it, rather splendidly. Finally I found my way back to one of the light rail systems and managed to get home.
On my last day a trip to Taal. By van to Tagaytay, let off just before the city to take a tricycle scooter to a 'resort' whose oily owner charges me double the going rate for a boat over to the island; I realise that Tagaytay is high above the lake as we turn a corner and start to descend towards it, a beautiful green valley with the big, long, snaking, mountainous island rising from the middle of the lake. Arriving on the island, which is an active volcano, surprised to find a small village: to live here is dangerous and officially forbidden, but to these informal residents the incentive is too great of offering guides and ponies to tourists going up the trail, where neither guide nor pony is needed. Tiny children play in the village by easily riding tiny ponies. In a desperate attempt to interest me in a ride, the first local to collar me tells me it is a two-hour walk. It's the very middle of the day and the tropical heat is sweltering, I have most inappropriate open sandals, and I am at the top in half an hour. Near the bottom of the trail stands a tall tree with a crown bursting in blood-red flowers: it stands out because in all the hillside I see nothing else besides green and brown. It's a dry, dusty path - one local tries to sell me a face mask - and ponies canter past in both directions bearing tourists and led by local guides, or sometimes with the guide riding behind. At a couple of little holes in the rock on the way up huge plumes of steam billow out, scalding hot and with a strong sulphurous smell.
It is good to reach the top, where there is a shelter and bottles of water for sale. There is a lake within the crater - a lake within a lake - and even an island in the lake, a small rock poking its head above the surface. The level of the lake is lower than of the surrounding Lake Taal, and it is a much deeper, darker green. The steep sides are covered with thin scrub. There is a faint path too, but it is for scientists and officials, not tourists or locals. Descent into the crater is unsafe and forbidden, and this regulation even the locals seem happy to abide by: the desolate valley keeps its dark green secrets, and here and there steam rises from a vent in its slopes.
When I get back across the lake my tricycle driver has vanished, seemingly forgetting our agreement that he would wait and take me back (it was evidently a mistake to pay him earlier, though I dare say his main interest was the cut he got from the resort swindler). But there are 'jeepneys' passing along the road, the riotously colourful open-backed trucks that are a popular form of local transport. I take one to the neighbouring town of Tanauan, a bustling, colourful, most un-Manila like place, from where a bus to Manila takes me almost to my hotel.