MANILA MEANDERINGS

Cubao, Lots Of Shops, So Shop Lots!

Cubao is a retail rabbit warren straddling EDSA, the main thoroughfare of this city. Between Makati/Ortigas and Quezon City, it offers more than just the home of the Araneta Coliseum, once upon a time the largest dome covered auditorium in South East Asia. There are several Malls and shopping complexes and a large and vibrant market as well as hundreds of small shops lining the streets.

The MRT stops there with both the north-south and the new east-west line having major stations suspended above the main streets EDSA and Aurora Boulevard. The streets always seem full of traffic and the sidewalks bursting with pedestrians going somewhere! The multi lane major roads are spanned by overhead walkways and getting around from one side to the other involves climbing up and down stairways. The MMDA (Metro Manila Development Authority) has its’ blue shirted and hard hatted employees patrolling the overpasses to keep the sidewalk vendors and beggars down as much as possible.

All the same I saw four of them standing opposite a one armed man who sits and silently waits for alms just about every time I have been there. The MMDA don’t seem in a hurry to move him on, despite wearing t-shirts telling how they make the sidewalks clear for pedestrians to walk along unhindered. They have had virtual riots in the past when moving on side walk vendors and can often be seen carrying rattan Arnis sticks to aid in their work. Perhaps if someone had given a donation they would have swooped on the donor, no doubt there is a law against giving alms similar to that in force in Cebu.

Once on the “mall side” (north bound) of EDSA you come across the fairly new Farmers Mall. Behind this mall lies several others ranging in vintage from rather dated (Ari Mall and SM) to not even open yet but showing great promise (Gateway). In between there is the Shop Right, Rustan’s and the large public market. There is also a Fiesta Carnival with rides and amusements next to the Araneta Coliseum, a jeepney terminal and a large cinema complex.

I liked the Araneta Coliseum as around its’ base are several restaurants including a Singaporean place (that holds the promise of some decent curries and noodles) and a Starbucks. The Coliseum regularly holds basketball games and cockfights and I am hoping to see a boxing match there sometime. I haven’t been able to confirm it but I think that is where Mohammad Ali had his “Thrilla In Manila” back in the seventies. They also hold pop concerts and other musical events and this December will host the Hansen Tour to the region. I will make sure I won’t miss that one! Teeny-Bop heaven! I’m joking.

In the basement of SM there is a large Ace Hardware, a larger food court and an amusement area which includes a small bumper-car track amongst other things. I must say the food court is the usual SM Basement gig, lots of places selling the same basic half dozen Filipino dishes despite what nationality they may allude to in their business name.

I did like the public market with some of the largest tuna on sale I have seen outside the Tokyo Fish Market. Most of the stalls, although still Filipino Market style, apppeared to try and offer their wares in a hygenic manner. There were numerous uniformed inspectors wandering around looking important and making a show of enforcing the rules, at least while the Kano was watching and taking photographs!

Cubao has two National Book Stores that I could find, one of which is quite large and very comprehensive. Farmers Mall has numerous stores selling clothes, computers and so on and the full range of fast food from McDo (local name for McDonalds) to Greenwich, Jollibee and Chow King. The mall connects to the north-south MRT and is always buzzing.

The major roads, EDSA and Aurora, do seem to sever the retail areas a little, cutting the place into quarters. There are numerous other streets and places to explore, not just the main retail area around the Araneta Coliseum, but most of the shops are just selling the same things the first thousand or so offer, so why trudge the overpasses? One thing you will notice is how you are the only foreigner around for miles! I have seen only one other foreigner, an elderly woman, there in five recent visits.

What I like about Cubao is that you have all the kinds of stores you ever would want to shop at in the one area, lots of variety to choose from and yet the prices are more realistic than the flash shopping malls of Ortigas and Makati. I wouldn’t be too sure of getting cheaper prices from the small stores along the back streets, I found several of them charging a few peso’s more for everyday items like batteries and hand towels compared to what you could get them for inside the malls or the department stores. Like anything, anywhere, it pays to shop around and the great thing about Cubao is, there are plenty of opportunities to do just that.

FUNNY MONEY!

A New Scam To Watch Out For! Part 1.

I have been coming to Manila a couple of times a year for nearly twenty years and for the last three years I have been living permanently in the Philippines, albeit in Cebu. Returning recently to Manila full time for work has brought back memories but it has also given me some new ones to file away. I thought I had seen pretty much most of the scams in regular use against foreigners, either first hand or from a safe distance. The one I will relate here was not only a new one for me, but also a new one for one or two long term expats of my acquaintance.

One Saturday I find myself at the end of a jeepney route, in this case it was Harrison Plaza, a salubrious shopping center at the end of Malate near Manila Bay. It is a major sleaze pit and pick up joint for hookers, even in the middle of the day as when I arrived. I was in search of some refreshment before I intended to walk down to Malate Park and do some research for a story on the area. (Philippine Dreams December 2004,Manila Meanderings)

I was approached on the mezzanine level by a scabby looking Bakla with padded bra and broken teeth, dirty hair in a pony tail and a home made tattoo on his arm. He asked if I wanted chicks and I declined. He ignored me and called over a young woman and said I could have her for eight hours for P1500. I repeated my refusal and started to walk away. Apart from the fact I am married, Harrison Plaza is known as a place where the girls you buy are either underage or thieves or both, with or without STDs. The pimp followed and told me the price was now only P1000. Forget it, bugger off, go away, Hindi Alis! Walang na pera! (go away, I have no more money)

He persisted a little longer but I kept walking and went on my merry way. I wandered around Malate, along the BayWalk and up to the Manila Yacht Club, then headed back to the Plaza for a bite and a jeepney home. As I wandered past the area he had accosted me in before, this pimp materialises at my arm and is agitated and very upset. He whines that the one thousand peso note you paid me for the girl was fake, now I am in trouble.

I asked him to repeat what he just said and he did! At that point another person appeared out of thin air, this one looking quite neat in a Barong type shirt and slacks, short hair and a semi-automatic in a belt holster on his right hip, under the shirt. He also had hand cuffs under the shirt on the left hip and a cell phone around his neck. I ignored him and the pimp and turned on my heel and made a rapid bee line for the exit where the taxis wait. I walked fast and didn’t look back, just kept moving as I smelt a rat, something was going down and it had me plastered all over it!

As I was about to get into the cab the pimp and his mate arrived, said something in rapid Tagalog and the neatly dressed gun toter grabbed my arm and told me he was a cop and not to move. He flashed a wallet which I grabbed hold of and studied carefully. On one side was a PNP badge and on the other an ID card that looked pretty genuine. He had a death grip on his wallet and only later I realised his thumb was over the photo.

He mumbled the obligatory we sort this out and then I call Immigration as if that would scare me into complying. I told him there were a lot of fake cops around Manila and I wasn’t sure he was genuine. I had no doubts about the gun which I had felt up as he showed me the wallet and it was a large frame Colt 1911A1 .45 ACP style handgun. By now a crowd had formed and there was no way I was making it into a cab and getting away.

The pimp repeated his allegation that I had given him a fake one thousand peso bill and when he went to spend it he was arrested or stopped, depending on which version he was saying. It was all very upsetting to the poor thing and he was looking good for a Filipino Oscar. The cop said we had to sort this out and I would go with him. He asked for ID and I told him I didn’t have any and he accepted that. Hmmm!

He said we had to go to the security office. I didn’t want to go anywhere as I figured if we went to the police station it would get more expensive. I asked what the problem was and if the bakla got another P1000 would that be the end of it? I had no intention of paying a peso if I could help it but I wanted to feel out the situation. The cop muttered something vague and unheard and I got the gist there may be more to this. I figured he was going to try and pin solicitation on me and then the bakla would produce a 15 year old who would swear I did the deed and the girls mother would chip in that she helped clean away the soiled sheets and saw the whole thing etc.

Next thing we were walking inside and heading for the security office. I was behind the cop and the bakla and could have turned and ran anytime. Of course I would have been the slowest waddling foreigner Bear in Manila and it is very hard for Bears like me to blend in with the crowd here! No, I would have to brazen this out and see where it was going. I was prepared if necessary to pay the thousand pesos if I had to, anything was better than trying to beat a trumped up sex charge. Even if you beat it you are still tainted and plenty of people would be less than convinced of your innocence. Try explaining your appearance on TV in an orange t-shirt marked PNP DETAINEE, as one of mistaken identity and see how many will give you the benefit of the doubt!

FUNNY MONEY!

A New Scam To Watch Out For! Part 2.

In the security office I was surrounded by uniformed and plain clothes security officers. The cop spoke into his cell phone a second time and I wondered how come they don’t give Manila cops two way radios? They do but I wasn’t 100% sure of this at the time! I pressured the cop and said either produce this fake note or I am going. Then I told him even if he shows me the fake note he can’t prove it belonged to me or that I gave it to the bakla. At this he said we had to go to where the money was!

OK, so now we are out on the street, heading away from the mall! I am behind the cop and the bakla, who is berating me and begging me to admit I paid him the funny money and lets get this over with. We get to the traffic lights at the road that runs along the mall. I ask where are we going and the cop says we have to go to the Barangay Captain’s office where the money is being held. Hmmm?

I repeat that it is my word against the bakla, I have denied giving him anything and there is no way he could prove anything anyway, even if I had given him funny money. I then said there is no way I was going any further with him or the bakla and I was leaving. At this I turned on my heel and strode off back towards the mall.

The cop stayed standing there but the bakla went off his brain, poked me in the arm and yelled at me. I warned him not to poke me again or I would defend myself. I tried to get into a cab as I figured if I hopped a jeepney he could keep up, even incite the passengers somehow against me. I had my camera and a magazine in one hand as I opened the cab door with the other. The bakla seized his chance and my glasses and stole them off my face quick as a flash.

He kept dancing just out of range as I tried to get them back. I knew from hard experience as a school boy how pointess it would be to dance along, it was either tackle and down the mongrel or say goodbye to the glasses. I said goodbye to $200 worth of prescription two tone glasses in a P400 frame. Without the camera and magazine in one hand I might have been able to grab them, but I doubt it. He would have simply thrown them under a passing jeepney or something. If I had decked the mongrel then I would have really been in trouble. Hitting a Filipino with breasts, even a thieving bakla, in daylight and full view of the public isn’t advisable for foreigners!

I jumped into the cab and told the driver to simply drive. As we stopped in traffic around the corner out the front of the Manila Zoo, another taxi passed us and stopped right in front. Next to the driver was the cop! I told my driver to make a quick turn once the other taxi had missed the intersection and we went off to Makati. I realised then for sure the cop was a fake, probably going back to his day job as a security guard at some fancy five star hotel.

This scam might have worked better for them if I had in fact paid for the services of the hooker, the guilt and doubt would have made it difficult to walk away with confidence. I was never totally convinced the cop wasn’t a real, albeit crooked, cop. Insulting the real deal could be self destructive if he takes it personally and continues on somehow even after the original issue is resolved. Filipinos have thin skins to begin with where white foreigners are often concerned, no value in making it worse. The bakla was very convincing, at least to onlookers and anyone who didn’t know the truth about the fact I never paid the bakla with a fake bill for anything! I figured if I had to pay a real thousand to avoid complications, it might be worth it, but that would be a line call and the last resort. Of course you don’t want to give in too early but you also don’t want to miss the chance to get out for just a grand if you have to.

You see this is not about right or wrong or justice, it is street survival, pure and simple. Throw enough mud and some will stick and it is too easy for scammers to set a foreigner up and have him facing a capital charge of soliciting a minor and looking down the barrel of the death penalty! Yes, things can go from bad to very shitty real fast here if you are unlucky to find yourself in a situation like that. It happened to a good friend of mine, John Martin. He was setup with a bullshit drugs charge and spent six months incarcerated until he was finally able to effect his release. It cost him just about everything he had one way or another.

The final cost of that day’s little adventure was a pair of decent glasses. Cheap when you think of how it might have ended. Did I want to deck the bakla? Damn right I did! Could I have done it? Let me see, I was an unarmed combat instructor in the Australian Army, I hold several black belts in martial arts, have boxed, worked as a bouncer and on and on so yeah, I could have cleaned the street with him and the cop. Then what? It doesn’t pay to get physical here unless your life is at risk. My life wasn’t in danger, just my reputation and my fortune, such as it is! I do think though that if I had continued on to the Barangay Captain’s office I might have ended up in a ditch with a leaky hole in the back of my head.

Do I want to go back there and find the mongrel bakla and give him a serve? Sure, but how dumb would that be? Best thing I can do is stay well away, chalk it up to experience and let others know about this scam. Besides, I had a spare pair of specs back home anyway!

EDSA SATURDAY NIGHT

Why You Take The Train When Travelling Along EDSA!

Part 1.

When I first came to Manila, nearly 20 years ago, there was no light rail alternative. PNR (Philippine National Railways) still enforced its right of way along the single track that ran north-south through the heart of the city. Today the rail line north is no longer in use, the southern line stops way before it even nears the center of Manila and all of that is a good thing for the thousands who call the strip alongside the tracks, home. Thousands of squatters have taken up residence in jury built shanties and shacks for miles along the track. There is often talk about resolving the issue, usually with ridiculous ideas like buying out the squatters (and their votes!) and giving them title to their narrow land holdings. Of course that neither properly resolves their long term housing issues or clears the way for more much needed road transport alternatives.

As an aside, just the other day the train from the south derailed and killed more than a dozen people. Seems the track had been dismantled by locals who sell off the spikes and sleepers! The train went around a curve too fast for the dilapidated condition and derailed. How sad that people can be so poor and so stupid they endanger the lives of others just to make a peso!

I remember the first light rail system, the LRT, now known as LRT1. It runs north to south from Monumento at the northern end of EDSA, to Baclaran, past the southern end. EDSA, or Epifanio Des Santos Avenue, is the major ring road type thoroughfare that runs in a rough semi circle from Manila Bay past Makati, Ortigas, Cubao and Quezon City to the Northern Expressway and Monumento. The LRT1 runs down through the older parts of Manila like Quiapo and across Luneta (Rizal Park), edging along past Ermita and Malate and into Pasay and the street markets of Baclaran.

I rode the LRT1 the other day for just two stops, from Taft to EDSA and it took nearly half an hour. For some reason the train wouldn’t leave the station without waiting ten or fifteen minutes, then we crawled to the next stop as if the track was in need of repair. A little harrowing I must say, especially as you can look out of the windows at each end of the train and see the train coming up behind you stop just a few hundred meters back.

When it runs normally, the LRT1 has a section in the front just for women. In the rear of the last carriage there is a roped off section for men, either infirm, elderly or with children and monitored by a guard so the feminist types can’t claim sexist treatment with the women’s only carriage! How this works at peak times I am yet to see as there has always been more men crowded into the rear carriage than women travellers in the front one!

I first rode the LRT1 back in 1994 when I came for the WEKAF World Full Contact StickFighting Championships, held at the Alabang Country Club in Muntinlupa. (I won the Super Heavy Weight Division however they presented me with a Silver Medal as they wanted the Filipino I slaughtered to have “won” so he could go to the USA for the next competition! Watching the officials openly change the scores so Filipino’s would win heats was my first introduction to the blatant cheating and corruption that can happen here) Before the contest I visited a friend who was staying out at Monumento and I used the LRT1 to get there and back from my hotel in Ermita. I had seen the elevated rail line the year before but I never had the chance to try it out. I must say I enjoyed the speed and ease of travel, even back then when Manila traffic hadn’t reached its gridlocked peak (I believe that came in 1997).

I do recall one trip where I looked down and saw a crooked finger trying to open my front pocket so it could get to my wallet. I grabbed the wrist and followed it along until I looked into the eyes of the thief! I yelled out “pickpocket!” but as I did so he twisted his slippery wrist (they grease them up to help escape being grabbed) and stepped back, just as an accomplice stepped in and politely told me I was mistaken! I can still visualise the hooking action of the finger at my pocket, to this day! Right at that moment we pulled into a station and the thief and his apologising accomplice backed off and quickly stepped through the open doors. I didn’t follow but instead double checked my pockets and personal effects as it would be typical for a third person to rob you while you focused on the thief you caught.

Pickpockets all over the world are very good, usually, at what they do. They rely on your carelessness and the press of the crowd to help them get whatever you have not bothered to properly secure. Yesterday on the MRT2 I watched a hand sneak through the crowd standing in front of me ( I was seated) towards this large, fashionable “purse” type wallet this young trendy kid had stuck in his designer jeans. More money than sense but I couldn’t just let him get ripped off. I looked past the hips surrounding me and caught the eye of the owner of the hand, who withdrew his arm and then himself into another part of the carriage. I warned the young lad about what had happened but he seemed more contemptuous that some fat foreigner had bothered to speak to him. Next time he can lose his cash and cards!

EDSA SATURDAY NIGHT

Why You Take The Train When Travelling Along EDSA!

Part 2.

The MRT2 runs from EDSA’s beginning at Taft Avenue with a connecting walkway through the mall to the LRT1 line. It goes all the way to North EDSA station which is right near the North EDSA SM Mall. The gap between North EDSA MRT2 and Monumento LRT1 will one day be joined, but for now you have to continue your journey by jeepney or bus.

Along the way you can alight at Ayala Station and wander into the Mall Heaven of Glorietta 1, 2,3 and 4, then across Ayala Avenue through the Landmark Department Store and on to GreenBelt Malls, 1, 2 and 3! If you get off at the next station, Buendia, it is a short jeepney ride to the nightlife of P.Burgos Street.

Further up the line you come to Shaw Station where you can alight for SM Mega Mall and Ortigas, the bustling new business center. Cubao further on has several malls and the Araneta Coliseum, then a few more stations brings you to the end of the line.

There is a new east-west line, MRT3, which runs from out in the suburbs of Marikina City to the inner city area around Quiapo and the Divisoria market area. Basically for much of its length it follows Aurora Boulevard and up until now I haven’t had a reason to take a ride.

As Manila grows and spreads out, more of these mass transit light rail systems are needed. The road system can not handle the vehicular traffic now as it is. More people, more cars only means more congestion and even longer “peak” hours.

Tonight I hopped a jeepney to Cubao, getting off a little before the end of the line and grabbing a passing bus on EDSA. It was an airconditioned bus that was showing “BlackHawk Down” on a TV at the front. I grabbed the seat behind the driver which meant I could slip my legs under his seat and stretch out, but I had to suffer his incessant sounding of the very loud air horns. He would sound the horn at the vehicle in front even if we were stopped at a red light! The man was, basically, an idiot.

The seat was a one and a half seater. Obviously they would expect two Filipinos to fit on it but even that is silly as it simply isn’t big enough. The first three rows are made up of these seats, perhaps to allow lots of room for boxes to block the aisle? Who knows? Then the two seater seats begin, all fitted with three headrests of course. This justifies the conductor squeezing three Filipino’s onto these seats. Why Filipino’s simply accept this rubbish beats me. Of course it isn’t in their culture to say this is not acceptable or to do anything about it like send in a letter of complaint. Yet none of the Filipinos I have ever canvassed have liked being squashed in like sardines.

The traffic was horrendous. I was on the bus between 7 and 8pm on a very rainy Saturday night. Traffic both ways was completely stationary in some places, mainly major intersections such as at Ortigas. With the door open the whole time, the air con around me wasn’t working as well as I would have liked and the extra humidity from the rain made it a moist trip.

Dong the conductor had the annoying habit of fast forwarding the video regularly. He liked the bits where helicopters were flying but sped past the parts full of dialogue. I asked him why he was doing this and he said he didn’t understand the talking anyway, so why show it? I said perhaps the passengers wanted to follow the story? His reply was a shrug that suggested that it was his video and he could do what he wanted with it!

Meanwhile the mental midget we had unwittingly entrusted our lives with was back on the horn. Again for no discernable reason. I willed a cop to appear and hit him with a major fine for noise pollution and inherent stupidity, but to no avail. I received a call on my cell phone that was only half heard as he began to really wail into the horn with both hands! I tapped him on the back of the head pretty sharply and told him to lay off or I’d disconnect the thing. It seemed to work as he did ease off and only used it once or twice more before I alighted. Of course as soon as I walked away from the bus, you guessed it. He let cry! I was waiting for it so he didn’t have the satisfaction of making me jump, but it was a close run thing!

If I had taken the MRT2 it would have been merely fifteen minutes out of my life to get to Makati from Cubao. Of course the stations have vicious sets of steps to climb and the bus saved having to do that. But at a cost of P15 (compared to P13.50) and an extra forty five minutes or so. Not to mention another five percentage points of hearing loss!