Of course the city is hot. This is not new. The smell of human waste waits for you. It’s like little pockets of weed smoke on a city street. They’re invisible, but every once in a while you walk through the ghost of someone else’s indulgence. Hot, humid, still air is a magnifying glass, or a battering ram, for smell. I’m getting good at breathing shallow, short breaths. It’s worse through the nose, but I fear if I open my mouth I will experience the sensation in a new, hellish way. So far I haven’t actually seen any shit. I know it’s not a Manila thing, or even a Southeast Asia thing. It’s a worldwide thing, and it’s frighteningly more common than you would expect. You’ll find it anywhere there is uneven development, which is everywhere there is development.
It’s gnarly though. There isn’t a way to get rid of the smell, and since it’s so hot you’re constantly a little bit sweaty. Not dripping, but just sticky, which is unfortunate because while sight is the effect light has bumping off the object, smell is direct internalization of that object. What that means is you’re actually inhaling little poo particles each time you smell poo. What THAT means is when you’ve got sticky skin and you smell poo, you’re probably getting a lot of it stuck on your skin as well. This may sound disgusting, but believe me it’s much worse to experience first hand. If you feel vaguely disgusted then thank me for my prudish and overpolite descriptions. You’re welcome for not grossing you out as much as I could have.
The other thing with the heat and smell is the drainage. There is none. There is standing water everywhere, water that, if drunk, would kill. You don’t need a microscope to see the literal rivers of disease that are coursing through and underneath the streets. This is a potential source of the smell. I’ve gotten so caught up in the classroom and philosophy of law that I almost forgot how important water access as a basic human right actually is. It is scary to see that even in the financial district, the wealthy part of the city, with well-paved roads and consistent street signs and lights, there is a deadly health hazard on every block. Water, the thing which brings us life, also brings life to the bacteria that kill us as well.
Though it is heavy, the heat isn’t burdensome. And even the smell isn’t really that bad. It is that bad, actually, but you can’t fight it. It’s just that because of the heat, the humidity, the smell, the lack of wind, the open sewers, the standing water, and the apparent indifference (that could very well be resignation) of the local population, there is poop everywhere. I live on the 39th floor of the tallest building in the Philippines. It’s swanky and luxurious and most of all safe, but there is no place safe from the poop.
Mom, I’m alright, I’m not in danger. I just wanted to get that out there, so there wouldn’t be any lingering questions about the outcome of events. Now, I’m sure she’s absolutely worried because I had to start with that, but let’s just remember the end result: I’m alright, I’m safe, I’m not in any danger. I start with this because it’s better than starting by telling you that I was scammed, then robbed at knifepoint in a very dangerous favela, even though that happened too. I still have all my fingers and toes, and I only had 50 pesos on me, which is a little more than a dollar.
His name was Robert, but he may have been saying “robber,” which would have been my second or third clue that order had long since ditched me. Anyway, Robert spoke good English, was clearly intelligent, and charismatic. Conversational. I, on the other hand, was intent on not offending this legendary Philippine hospitality that so many people in California had foretold. Looking back, it’s almost as though everyone with even the slightest connection to the Philippines was working for a commission that was based on how many times they could mention hospitality, as though hospitableness were a genetic trait rather than the result of a nostalgic social interaction. I was trying. Speaking of genetic traits, it is a genetic trait of mine to hold distance, to brush off sociality with a grunt and a short hand motion. Well not today. I left that grumpy old man in my room. It’s time to have an adventure.
Hi Robert, I’m Eric. You work security at my hotel? Well, it’s not a hotel but maybe your English isn’t great so I’ll let that one slide. Sure, I’d love to come to your son’s birthday party. He’s 21? You know a better place to buy shoes? I’m in. So how old is your son turning? 24 today? Oh. Yeah, walking’s lame, if you’re getting a cab I’ll join you. Yes, the tattoos hurt. Well, I can’t show you all of them. How much did they cost? Money. Oh cool, this is a really narrow market street. Why are there so many barber shops? Yeah, I’m taking lots of pictures. This is awesome. Gangs? Yeah. So there are gangs in this neighborhood? Okay. No, I don’t smoke. You’re just stopping to buy some? Okay, whatever. I’ll just look around here. Oh cool you’re back. Who’s this other dude? Why is there a knife in your hand? Oh god dammit. Fuck. No, really, that’s the only money I’ve got. Student ID, insurance, credit card, Starbucks card. No, none of these are good. Fuck. You’re gonna take both my fucking phones. Fuck. Here. Oh, that’s right, I had my iPod too. Well, here you go. What, my juggling balls? What? They aren’t valuable. Fuck you, come on. Fuck. Alright, see ya Robert and other guy. Driver, take me the fuck back to Makati. Main roads. Do you know “main roads?” No, he’s not really my friend. Yeah, that was a mistake. Yes, a mistake. I can’t pay you, you know. What? No really I can’t pay you. Take me to Makati Ave and Ayala Ave. Fuck. Fine, find an ATM you piece of shit. Oh, you want a tip? Fine. Fuck. See ya taxi.
Then I had to figure out just how to give myself a hug in a place where I don’t know anyone or anything. I’m used to being tough, or at least showing tough. My hands don’t shake, and neither does my voice. My outsides don’t betray my insides in these situations. But I needed a hug and there was nobody to give me one, so I had to find a part of me that was genuinely not scared, that was genuinely filled with love and protection, and let that part of me hold the part of me that was scared from all the things that could have happened and full of shame that someone who has been to as many places as I have and who has found himself in as many compromising situations as I have could have been duped so thoroughly. I was also sad that my camera was gone, but excited to spend a couple months without a smart phone. I was angry at Robert, at his pal, at the taxi driver, at myself, and if I’m honest, briefly at all Filipinos. That didn’t last, but it was present. I’ve had worse thoughts. They come and go, and I don’t act on them, and they’re based on misdirected emotion. That’s okay. That’s human.
But I had to hug myself. What will work? Should I irresponsibly buy a new pair of shoes? I went to a mall. Should I have an iced coffee? No, I’d have to sit, and I would probably dwell, and dwelling is not what is needed right now. So I walked back, two phones, one iPod, and 250 pesos lighter. I think the fact I had to pay 200 pesos for the cab ride was funny. I didn’t feel lighter though. Be gentle with yourself, be kind to yourself, in these situations. That was my chant, my protection. Be kind, be gentle. Be kind, be gentle. Be kind, be gentle. Be kind, be gentle. Learn from this, but do not let this touch your adventuresome spirit. You just bought knowledge, and for less than you had to. I walked home strangely. Directly as I could, but some intersections have no crosswalks, and only those intersections were the ones I needed. There was no reason for it, either, though now that I think about it there were very few pedestrians about. The infrastructure did not blend with direct human interaction. It was chaotic. I stared at the traffic patterns as I headed home, determined to make it there before all my friends in Europe or the US fell asleep. I made it home before midnight in NYC and was able to talk for two and a half hours with a dear friend of mine who immediately set me at ease. A mixture of familiar faces, relief at getting to talk to someone I missed and haven’t seen in a while, and a reminder that I’m not an idiot—Robert was very good. We talked about tattoos, journalists, the intersection of philosophy and law, new authors I should read (Stefan Zweig), a book I just finished (Robert Badinter), and of course the death penalty. I swam, lifted heavy things with isolated parts of my body, and left the house again.
I walked to the mall, staring at the ground, remembering different parts of being robbed. Analyzing, trying not to judge myself. I was fighting off shame with a broom handle. That’s a funny metaphor, because as I was walking toward the entrance to the shops a pink plastic broom fell from at least 36 floors, maybe 72, and landed about five feet in front of me. Had it landed on me, I’m sure it would have done serious damage. I quickly imagined the worst way it could have hurt me—as a matter of course, the way a person with OCD might flick a light switch—and checked that more cleaning supplies weren’t already on their way down. Once the security guard and I were both satisfied that no more supplies were either being jettisoned or trying to end the pain, I almost skipped the rest of the way to the shops, happy to be alive.
With adrenalin, the endorphins, and the bar sufficiently lowered to “didn’t die,” I had an absolutely marvelous meal and bought a very cute new shirt that I’m going to wear tomorrow on my next adventure.
The chaos of the city is not something you can fight and ever hope to win. That doesn’t mean you have to succumb to it, either. There is a balance to be struck between standing on empty marble floors of air-conditioned modern buildings that could have been airlifted from Houston and sitting on the business end of a small knife letting a toothless ass grope your juggling balls. I think to truly live in Manila without hiding from it will be difficult. Integration is out. I am not here to form routines. I am here to sweat in hot metro cars where there are so many people you don’t even have to hold on to anything because there is no room to fall over anyway. I will learn to hold tattoos and suits in different, valid places in my heart. I will swing between respite in English and effort in Tagalog. The city is Chaos, and you could disappear into any hole or rhythm forever. The holes gaped in front of me, tunnels to black nothing, but I was not consumed. I have given up order, but I have not succumbed. The city has not beaten me. I am chaos.