Faine Opines

Southeast Asia, liberation technology, drones, and pontification

Month: July 2013

Sam Rainsy and Mu Sochua at CNRP Rally in Tuol Kok

A somewhat surprise rally this morning at CNRP headquarters in Tuol Kuork. I was told that they are collecting data on voter irregularities so they can make a case to Hun Sen. Mu Sochua personally organized the lines of people — and surprisingly, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha arrived, flanked by their olive-green clad guards.The crowd went wild.

I estimate about 400 people were there, and not too many journalists. There seemed to be a bit of confusion about if and where this was happening.

rainsybalcony3

Sam Rainsy’s rhetoric is growing more intense. He called for the CPP “big three” – Hun Sen, Chea Sim, and Heng Samrin — to step down as they have lost their constituencies in their home areas. The people began chanting STEP DOWN, STEP DOWN, STEP DOWN after he said this.

In a deft bit of sloganeering, he added: “No one can buy us, no one can break us, no one can intimidate us.”

cnrprallybig

“We will give to the people the power of the people,” the CPP leaders said to an excited crowd, many bearing ID books or other proof that they had been properly registered but turned away from the polls regardless.

They will gather information here in Phnom Penh and in the provinces, then will use this to make a case to Hun Sen that the election was stolen.

sochuafingercnrprally

I’ve heard that the CNRP leaders appear to be intentionally announcing such gatherings only minutes before they take place on social media, in an effort to avoid CPP interference. This seems to be a reasonably good strategy.

I don’t know where they’re off to next today, but I do know that things are heating up.

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Cambodia elections – photos from the rally on Friday

The rally on Friday was remarkable. A Mardi Gras atmosphere filled the air, and the CNRP supporters did a victory lap around Wat Phnom and kept going. Traffic stopped dead and people poured into the streets — including monks. Old men told me what they really thought about Hun Sen, speaking with remarkable frankness.

All is not sunshine. The CNRP’s rhetoric focuses increasingly on racial hatred of the Vietnamese and those of Vietnamese ethnicity within Cambodia. Meanwhile, allegations of extreme voter oversubscription and less-than-indelible ink run rife.

Polling opens here in Phnom Penh at 7:00 AM.

CNRPflag CNRPshout CPPpaddle heretheycome monkscnrp rainsyhasahat rainsywaiP

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Photos from Phnom Penh election season

I’ve never seen anything like this before.
flagconfronting cnrpladies thumbinair olderfolks goodtimeflag girlsonabike boysonbikes cambodia-flag-boy

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Things I Miss About The US

Here is a distinctly incomplete list of things that I miss about the US. Most involve food.

avocado

– Salmon and avocados. 

Salmon is a cool-weather fish and is not known to congregate in the murky waters of the Mekong. Avocados, too, are a cooler-weather vegetable that whiile sometimes found — and excellent – in Southeast Asia, tend to be both elusive and rather hit and miss. When you combine salmon and avocados into one dish, you are then confronted with a well-nigh-sublime sucker-punch of Good Fats and omega 3s and , wrapped into one delicious, delicious package. Extra points if sold in the format of spicy salmon avocado rolls with brown rice. When I return to the US, I will frequent the Whole Foods prepackaged sushi counter, and lo — I will not be ashamed. And then I will have smoked salmon on toast points for dinner.

groupergreeksalad.jpg

– Salads the size of your head

In Asia, you can at times obtain a good salad, but such a dish rarely reaches the behemothic, world-nourishing sizes of the American variant. A salad-bar is largely unknown: you will generally instead receive three or four delicate bites of leafy greens, often lashed with a salad dressing composed largely of sugar if you are particularly unlucky. The concept of the dinner salad has not really hit Asia — probably reasonable in places where greens that won’t immediately give you salmonella are a newish concept — and it remains a dodgy proposition to order one for dinner or lunch if you particularly hungry.

Meanwhile, American salads use a humble bed of mixed leaves to pile on buckets of protein, cheese, nuts, and maybe even the occasional extraneous vegetable. You could theoretically curl up and go to sleep in some American salads. I have no problem with this.

tamales and chili.

tamales and chili.

– Mexican Food 

Ah, Mexican food. Mexican food is certainly popular in some Asian countries, but that does not mean it is good. The fiery yet subtle flavors of true Mexican cuisine are usually sublimated into something curiously bland and insipid, regardless of the chili-loving proclivities of most Southeast Asian countries.

Tortillas are usually bought at high prices from import stores and treated with the curious reverence afforded the Hope Diamond: cotija cheese is essentially unknown, salsa comes in the Pace Picante variant or something close to it, and a “fajita” is actually just a taco that you make yourself. Hot sauce provided is usually of the Sriracha-variant, while they’ve always just run out of guacamole before you’ve arrived. Ceviche, curiously enough, is essentially unknown.

Phnom Penh happens to have a few decent outlets for Mexican food, but it is the only place I’ve been in Asia where I’d bother expending the calories. Everywhere else appears to be catering to the mutant and sad Mexican food proclivities of German tourists and Chinese visitors eager to expand their horizons — of which as little should be said as possible.

klialcctnemesis

Kuala Lumpur LCCT: my nemesis.

 – Even The Podunkest of American Airports 

Airports that serve cheaper airlines in Asia sometimes seem to be cleverly designed to produce maximal discomfort — and yes, I am looking at you, Kuala Lumpur Low Cost Terminal, although the current incarnation of the Denpasar outfit in Bali certainly rates a mention.

American airports, while often downright dismal, will at least usually offer a frozen yogurt outlet, a salad bar, free Wifi, and a place to purchase the newest edition of the Economist for less than $20. If you’re lucky, you can even get a Chicago-style hot dog or a surprisingly decent gumbo, depending on your region. Also, they have carpets. For some reason, a carpet in an airport fills me with a deep sense of existential well-being. I cannot explain this, I can only report. (This does not apply to the airport in Singapore, the new terminal in Bangkok, or the surprisingly humane Phnom Penh airport).

The downside is that in America, I can understand every single conversation that is going on around me. That way lies madness.

Jakarta!

Jakarta!

 – Crossing The Street in Peace

In most parts of developing Asia, crossing the street is a dangerous, nerve-wracking affair that can determine whether you will live or die. Further, it is fiendishly full of variables. Is the driver of that public bus in a good mood today, or is he angry about something? Is that man in the SUV drunk? Is that gentleman on the motorbike having a fight with his girlfriend on a cellphone? It is impossible to know, but you cannot realistically spend the entirety of your remaining life waiting on a parking island for something to change. (Although that might make for a good Tom Hanks vehicle).

So you sally forth. You throw your arm up at the oncoming traffic, as if your feeble little weedy limb will convince the owner of a hurtling death machine to stop. You wonder if a vehicle will run over and rip off your toes. You endure. (Or you don’t, in which case you can hope that someone bothers to call the embassy when they relieve you of your wallet – which hey, you won”t be needing, anyway).

It's not actually like this most of the time.

It’s not actually like this most of the time.

 – Solitude 

The first time I returned to the US after an extended period in India, I flew into San Francisco International Airport, where my parents picked me up for the drive back to Sacramento. We drove out of the airport and into downtown San Francisco, looking for a place to have lunch, and I was immediately confronted with the sinking feeling that must be incumbent upon the final survivors of zombie movies. “But where is everyone?” I asked, half-jokingly — but not really as a joke, because the standard-issue Wednesday afternoon streets of San Francisco resembled a tumbleweed-strewn ghost town to my Bangalore-hewn sensibilities.

Later that day, I went for a walk by the natural river corridor close to our house in the late afternoon, and walked for a good twenty minutes without spotting another human. I was partially convinced that no one had bothered to tell me about a pandemic. I got over it eventually. But the yawning, empty spaces and the quiet of many parts of America is something of a rare commodity in most of Asia.

Further, even if you are enjoying being alone in nature’s immensity for a bit in one of those rare forgotten bits of Asia,  it is generally congruent to Asian sensibilities that you will be gifted with company as soon as someone spots you standing around being lonely. For most of Asia, solitude is a problem that needs to be solved immediately, preferably with snacks.

Goodbye, sweet prince.

Goodnight, sweet prince.

– Not Being Robbed A Lot 

I love Cambodia, but it is currently undergoing a street crime wave that makes doing things like wearing a purse and walking around at night rather deeply poorly advised. (Also, you should probably always consider your smartphone a temporary and ephemeral thing, or at least look into a good insurance policy). I have currently donated two smartphones to the Larceny Gods and am not enthused about the prospect of losing another — but it strikes me as inevitable. In the meantime, I’ll continue to abscond with the purse until I leave here, even if I look like a huge nerd.

There is crime and theft and murder in America, of course, but in pleasant California suburbs it is unlikely someone will decide to make off with your purse while you’re waiting in line for Pinkberry with everyone else coming back from soccer practice on Friday evening. I am quite willing to trade a bit of theft-related uncertainty for an easier, cheaper, and more…is the word “authentic”? – life in Asia, but it’s also nice to be able to leave your phone on a table while you read a book without expecting anything untoward to happen to it.

And I really can’t remember the last time anyone I knew in Sacramento was held up at gunpoint for their laptop directly outside their house, although you’re welcome to write in, readers. (Having your house broken into when you’re away on vacation is another story entirely, although as this does not actually involve you at the time, this somehow bothers me less).

mecca.

mecca.

– Public libraries 

A recent experience with a university library in the Philippines, where the staff were all vastly concerned by the prospect of three Americans walking in wanting to look at books, has concerned me that the great American municipal library is one of more pleasing institutions. I intend to check out a bunch of novels I will read halfway through and then forget about immediately upon returning to California.

beach-bike-sanur.jpg

– Riding a bicycle 

You can ride a bicycle in Asia, but this is a semi-suicidal practice best performed by people who have already lost the will to live. The odds are against you: with a standard bicycle, you are bringing a knife to a gun fight in most Asian cities, and motorbike drivers, car drives, and the owners of SUVs alike are not going to be particularly sympathetic to your plight. Bike lanes are non-existent and are thought to be mythical, and you can also forgot about a sidewalk.

There is a known sequence of events in Phnom Penh wherein the starry-eyed new expat takes a look at the small size of the city and decides to purchase a bicycle: he or she then rides it to work and back a few times, has a few near-death experiences, and quickly begins to make all sorts of excuses about why it would really be better to take a moto or a tuk tuk today. Eventually, the bicycle fades into the background and the expat decides it might be a good idea to buy a motorcycle.

Flori

Florida.

– The Occasional Crisp Morning

Yes, I may be violently allergic to weather not conducive to the survival of pine trees, but even I sometimes like to step outside on a October Saturday to be greeted with the faint promise of winter in the air, and the smell of burning leaves from somewhere down the street. Or perhaps the occasional morning in the upper 50s in Florida, where you can make a morning walk under palm trees with the sunlight just warm enough for shirt-sleeves, promising to intensify into something better as the day wears on.

Sometimes I even like driving up to Lake Tahoe, where I can clump around awkwardly in the snow like a newly minted goat, wearing at least four layers so none of the nasty cold particles can settle upon me. (There was a time when I snowboarded. I have substituted scuba diving, and I have no regrets).

Regardless: I am from California and the South, let’s not go nuts here.

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Things I Don’t Miss About The USA

America: it's like this.

America: it’s like this.

I am regularly asked about what I miss about life in the USA. The list usually seems to consist of salmon and avocados in roughly that order: I have realized that more interesting may be what I do not miss. I’ve made an incomplete list. 

 – Shockingly expensive health care. 

Broke your nose? That will be $5,000. Cancer? Prepare to sell your first-born! Better not be kidney cancer, because we might need those, too. Broke a finger or have a persistent cough or got a really bad cut? Ignore it and treat it yourself and hope it goes away — you do have to eat this week and that box of stale Frosted Flakes is running awfully low.

Or, you could always start a Kickstarter for your expenses if you get a brain tumor. Nothing can go wrong with the Kickstarter tactic of covering devastating, life-threatening ailments.

This is what all the punk kids want painkillers for.

This is what all the punk kids want painkillers for.

 – No Painkillers For You!

Under the age of 40? In serious pain? You’re probably just an addict, you punk asshole! Take two Tylenol PM for your dismembered finger and your dislocated shoulder and never contact me again!

Indeed, insofar as I can determine, doctors are so terrified of being accused of facilitating the massive drug operation of some miscreant with a lot of scabs that actual-in-pain youth are interrogated as if they themselves were the criminal, for having the temerity to be of a certain age and to be in pain. I imagine the scrutiny is even worse if one’s pain is not easily identified by means of either an X-ray or simply peering at the afflicted body part.

Meanwhile, in Asia, most painkillers up to and over Codeine are available at your local corner drug store, sold by a nice 12-year-old who’s manning the store while Mom and Dad are out. I do not necessarily suggest the US adopt this method of total laissez-faire, but it does make it a lot easier to seek relief for the occasional stubbed toe without feeling as if you are a sex offender.

They thought they were so goddamn cool.

They thought they were so goddamn cool.

– Flippant Baby Boomers

Flippant baby boomers do roam Asia, but they are not in their native habitat, and are generally alone or in small and unthreatening groups. Further, the type of baby boomers who have decided to pull up sticks and immigrate to the great Oriental unknown are rather unlikely to indulge in long lectures about Making It to their hapless, youthful counterparts. No, a young American is much more likely to be cornered by a somewhat lit and wrathful baby boomer over Thanksgiving dinner or at some sort of alumni function: introduce a bottle of wine or a particularly self-pitying remark by a millennial into the brew, and watch the indignant sentiment bubble inevitably to the surface.

“When I was your age, we worked our way through college by doing hard time at McDonalds over the summer!” might one man dressed in a sports coat say, putting down a tumbler of Maker’s Mark. “Kids your age are just frittering their money away on iPhones and forgetting the value of HARD WORK and FISCAL RESPONSIBILITY.” (He has an iPhone. He has made it, and thus, in his world-view, this is OK).

Or perhaps’ one’s parents – not applicable to my own parents, who might be reading this and have never been prone to buying expensive marine sports equipment, among their other tangible virtues — “No, you can’t move back in with us. We told you last month, we’re losing the house because we couldn’t make our mortgage payment. The Jet-Ski has to go, too.”

Under these conditions, it is sometimes best to simply be absent.

This is NOT expensive.

This is NOT expensive.

– Shockingly Expensive Alcohol

Unless you’re in one of America’s poor forgotten enclaves – hello, New Orleans! – attempting to get drunk as a good citizen without access to a moonshine distillery on a Saturday night will probably cost you upwards of $50 — a horrifying reality I discovered for myself upon interning in Washington DC for the summer. If you are a lightweight, you may be able to get sloshed for under $30 if you manage to find a dive bar where everything is sticky and the bartender really wants to talk to you about how the Jews are ruining the entertainment industry for everyone else.

All this encourages one to throw more house parties that feature jug-wine and the sort of ridiculously high-proof alcohol that can be used in acts of arson in a pinch. Merely sitting around a bar for the heck of it, downing drink after drink in the interest of an evening’s entertainment, is simply financially out of reach for most but the wealthy in many US cities.

Meanwhile, in Cambodia, you can purchase a liter of Jim Beam for $7, and theoretically draw yourself a delicious bourbon bath for under $100. (I imagine this would sting. And be a fire hazard. But you are welcome to attempt it).

hardcore.

hardcore.

– Completely Unjustified Exceptionalism

“This is the finest country in the world.”

“Just remember, we live in the best country in the world.”

“Aren’t you glad to be back in the best country in the world?”

Curiously, these sentiments — repeated with the fervor of a religious chant that if said enough will somehow come true —are most often expressed to the returning or aspirant traveler by people who have been recently laid off and who lack health insurance, or who are desperately seeking a way to fix their tire after falling into the hundredth gaping pothole to open up on their never-maintained local road. We are indeed the nation of temporarily embarrassed millionaires, to quote Steinbeck, and it is amazing how many people will step in to remind you of this.

Burmese death buses are not actually a viable solution.

Burmese death buses are not actually a viable solution.

Non-Functional Public Transportation

Get a car or walk, pussy.

Cambodia, of course, does not have anything even approximating public transportation, and the idea of a public bus system in Phnom Penh evokes images of graft, mysteriously missing bus parts, and a horrifying body count whenever it rains. But the non-motorcycle owner in Phnom Penh can get a tuk-tuk or a motorcycle taxi for easy point to point access for pleasingly little money. The resident of most urban areas in the US cannot exactly rely upon some teenager with a motorbike to get to work, tuk tuks are probably outlawed by at least five different urban codes, and taxis cost $15 to go around the block. It is no wonder that the people are clamoring for bike lanes.

I also don't miss this.

I also don’t miss this.

– Pandering TV and Local News

TV news panders violently to the great polis in Asia, but I happen to have the massive advantage of not speaking the language, and am thus immune to the inane things uttered by Khmer, Thai, or Vietnamese presenters. If I wish to watch TV news, I can merrily flick on the tube and choose from the BBC, Al Jazeera, or CNN’s international edition, all of which do a reasonably good job of focusing on international affairs with a reasonably minimal amount of devotion to either cheap emotional pandering or cat videos.

Then I return to the US, do the same, and am confronted with a CNN that is roughly 50 percent devoted to silly dogs that can surf, the latest Instagram scandal perpetuated by the Rogue Kim Kardashian, and perhaps 10 minutes of attention to some curious camel-ridden country called Egypt. Local newspapers are only a bit better, with a curious penchant for devoting their front page to things like a 5th grader who made, like, a lot of paper cranes and the recent tri-county Japanese animation craft fair. I shall not even speak of Fox News.

burmesemall

This is a mall in Burma but you get the idea.

– Malls

Actually, I have a love-hate affair with the great American mall. Asians are absolutely entranced by malls as well, and have merrily turned Singapore, Hong Kong, and much of Bangkok into a giant air conditioned retail space. More power to them I suppose — it gets hot there — but a turn through these enormous Asian mallplexes is at least something of an exotic experience, with a number of stores and restaurants and Shopping Experiences unknown to middle America, and fish spas, and weird fast-food characters, and girls wearing unidentifiable outfits.

And then I came back to the US for a stint in January 2012, and I went to a mall in urban Sacramento for something to do on a rainy day. The culture shock was the most intense I have ever experienced, as I wandered around the high ceilinged confines of a mall I’d been visiting for upwards of a decade: I suddenly saw it anew, deserted at 11:00 AM on a Wednesday, the hat stores and the Hot Topic and the Wet Seal, the echoing halls and the white-washed floor, a man spritzing perfume at passerby with an unclean expression on his face. I had just been writing about the travails of housing-displaced Cambodians and noted that all of the group I’d interviewed could easily reside within a few yards of this space: this struck me as rather horrifying. It was almost too much: I wanted to stay in the shadows where it would be a bit harder to see me. I wanted to leave, and I also wanted to stay: I am conflicted about it to this day.

On the bright side, malls have food courts, Forever 21, and are great places to go when it rains. So I cannot condemn them outright.

rush-limbaugh-traitor1

– Blithering American Idiots

When living abroad, one tends to encounter rather well-educated and enlightened Westerners, the sort of people who are open to other cultures and ideas and ways of life. If you meet other Americans — in the tiny minority who bother to get passports — they’re usually reasonably interesting individuals who are curious about the outside world.

Then you come back to the US and are invited to a party, where you stand around clutching a warm PBR, watching as everyone attempts to avoid talking to you after you mentioned you just came back from A Certain Third World Country. Your attempts at making conversation are unfortunately peppered with exotica as weird things in fact do comprise most of your recent existence: after some inquiries about whether you got “the SARs,” you are properly consigned to an awkward corner while the merits of the new “How I Met Your Mother Are Discussed.”

Or you’re talking to someone while waiting for the subway to arrive and they start discussing with great animation how immigrants and their lizard men henchmen are summarily ruining America. Or someone wearing a teddy bear sweatshirt attempts to tell you that Abortion is Murder as you’re waiting in line in the sweaty, human-scented confines of the DMV. Or you’re on a red-eye Southwest flight sitting next to a gentleman in a tie-die shirt and sweatpants, who is reading a book by Rush Limbaugh while noisily devouring a tuna-fish sandwich, small bits of which are falling onto your lap.

These are the little things.

To be followed by Things I Miss About the US, just for a smidgen of contrast. It’ll probably involve a lot of pictures of salmon. I regret nothing.

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Sam Rainsy, Ninoy Aquino, and Political Danger

ninoy-poster-final

I’ve been reading a book about the assassination of Ninoy Aquino, written by former Time correspondent and long-time Philippines watcher Sandra Burton. Burton’s exceptional account in “The Impossible Dream” describes the emotional highs of Ninoy as well as his near-fatalist feelings about the potential for foul play upon landing back in the Philippines, where he’d been exiled by the Marcos camp for years:  he wore white on the airplane as a sort of symbolism.

Burton was on the airplane with Aquino and heard the gunshots when he was killed point-blank as he got off the plane, likely by security forces. It remains a mystery to this day exactly who ordered the killing, but long-standing Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos was at the top of the list, alongside his chief of staff, General Fabian Ver.

I had just made it about halfway through the book when I heard about Sam Rainsy’s imminent return to Cambodia, and I immediately got to thinking about the parallels here.

Both Aquino and Rainsy have spent years in off-and-on exile from their native countries, thanks to their political viewpoints. Both are (or were) considered the symbolic leaders of the opposition movement against a long-standing and corrupt leader, who had made it absolutely plain that he had no intention of loosening his grip in power early. And both received a surprising eleventh-hour pardon that allowed them to return to the country to follow their political goals. Unlike Aquino, who served years in prison and conducted high-profile hunger strikes, Rainsy has taken the hint and has put himself into self-imposed exile to avoid jail-terms — probably to his political detriment.

Sam_Rainsy_(cropped)

Marcos and Hun Sen have their similarities as well. Both have paid some lip-service to the notion of democracy and “fair” elections, but are actually totally devoted to the cause of retaining power for themselves. Both Asian leaders built a large share of their reputation and their popularity among the people on the basis of growing economic stability, and in barest terms, roads.

Ferdinand Marcos and his government claimed that they “built more roads than all his predecessors combined, and more schools than any previous administration” — while Hun Sen on the campaign trail regularly points to the roads he’s built and the economic improvements that have occurred in his Cambodia as proof of his legitimacy. “Compare things with 1979, what we had at that time and what we have at this time,” Hun Sen told the Phnom Penh Post recently, invoking the possibility of an unpleasant “guardian spirit” that could attack those who failed to recognize all that he had done for them.

imelda_marcos_

Indeed, Hun Sen and both Marcoses — Ferdinand and Imelda — seem to share a patriarchal, indignant attitude towards the people, most evident when they feel the polis has wronged them in some way. Imelda saw herself as the “star and slave” of the people who was obliged to dress nicely amidst the barrio for them; so too does Hun Sen seem to see himself as an avenging hero, out from the jungle to serve as the selfless samdech of the public. They are personally hurt, or sound that way when they are criticized: they act as if they have been told off by a child or a close relative, and How Could You Speak to Me That Way, With All I’ve Done For You? When All I Want is What’s Best For You? 

There’s some similarities in play here. But do they extend far enough to the barest possibility of some harm being done to Sam Rainsy on his return to Cambodia? Would Hun Sen get anything out of making such a move?

!Sam3

It’s possible. Maybe. But I think that unlike the sickly Marcos of 1983, Hun Sen is too good a chess player to harm Sam Rainsy — at least during the election period. For Hun Sen, occasionally pardoning Rainsy then rescinding the privilege when international attention turns elsewhere has been a relatively fool-proof technique, and he hasn’t had to harm a hair on Rainsy’s head for the whole procedure to work.

He simply has to wait until Rainsy does something he can pounce upon again, and as matters stand in the summer of 2013, he gets to look rather benevolent to boot. At the moment, Rainsy is probably considerably more useful alive than dead.

I asked Cambodia watcher Donald Jameson if he thought Hun Sen would make a similar decision. “I think Hun Sen is too clever to do anything like that. Allowing Rainsy back undercuts much of the criticism he had been getting about the fairness of the election and there is very little that SR can to to alter the outcome of the vote unless something very unusual happens,” says Donald Jameson.

The death of Ninoy Aquino galvanized the opposition to the Marcos regime, and saw the ouster of the long-time president of the Philippines only a year later in the People Power Revolution.

Hun Sen, I suspect, has studied the situation and is unlikely to make the same mistake. But we will only for sure by July 20th.

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Manila and Intramuros

manilariverboat

 

The Philippines is looked over.

The visitor to the Philippines from the US is confronted with a large archipelago full of people who are very much aware of your homeland, who you yourself remain distinctly unaware of. All Californians grew up with Filipinos at school and in the neighborhood, but somehow we still looked through the reality of their place of origin.

Filipino restaurants didn’t dot the neighborhood, the local community college was unlikely to offer Tagalog lessons, and no one (other than Filipinos) spoke of saving up their money for that dream trip to Manila. Thailand and Vietnam seemed more real: even history books restricted the Philippines to a curious footnote in the remarkable career of MacArthur, or a paragraph or two about the Marcos regime, and Imelda’s fondness for footwear.

It is the overlooked Southeast Asian nation to the north, unless you’re a scuba diver: a long-term expat friend observed to me that he suspects the bulk of visitors are Hong Kong residents desperate to escape their peninsula for a long weekend. And there, Manila is only a brief plane ride away.

abigchurchwedding

It is blighted perhaps but not all of it is blighted. In the rare event of seeing an image of Manila in the Western media, it is inevitable that a dump be portrayed. Perhaps a correspondent will be standing atop this remarkable monument to filth, looking concerned and talking about the Plight Of The Poor.

Manila’s not-so-poor warrant not a mention, and the decline of the corrupted but very interesting Marcoses has rendered even the elite unimportant. “There’s no there there,” one imagines Gertrude Stein observing of the place, circa 2013.

But Manila also possesses skyscrapers – great canyons of them, a skyline “that encircles you” as my friend observed — and universities with mowed grass, and an old Spanish center, and suburbs with single-family houses and a profusion of joggers. Also there are mallls, malls that would fit into Iowa City, with everyone nipping in for Taco Bell and the latest sale on Vons sneakers, and walking down long marbled corridors of entirely American-origin shops, with not a single hint that you are in fact in Asia.

A hefty percentage of the crowd is wearing a shirt with a NFL team logo on it, or the American flag, and even the children are outfitted in Adidas.

The entire city strikes me as some parallel American re-imagining in some ways. In some ways, it makes me feel embarrassed. We – nationally, in nationalist terms – did not do well by this country.

sebastianfort

I decided to visit Intramuros because I am fond of Spanish colonial architecture, and also because I tend to feel that a good way to begin understanding what a city is all about is backtracking to where it first started from.

Manila was Intramuros and Intramuros was Manila before the slow progression of the city across the face of southern Luzon: here was the first Spanish feint into building their Ever Loyal City, populated by religious men, traders, and the local “Negritos” (as the locals, who were presumably both small and dark, were unkindly dubbed).

cooltricycle

The sameness of the Spanish colonial experiment is remarkable to me, and it is also comforting, as someone who has spent a hefty percentage of my life residing within various bits of the former Iberian empire. The same cobblestone streets and high ceilings; the same growths of palm trees and yellow-washed walls, and courtyards with austere fountains in them, the same brown signs and road-side lanterns.

navyboys

A stroll through Intramuros was very much akin to a stroll through the French Quarter (first built by the Spanish) or Ybor City in Tampa: I was disappointed to find that no one had thought to set up a shop producing hand-rolled cigars, though tobacco is not a primary Philippine export.

The San Agustin church in Intramuros was buit in 1589 and is one of the only structures still standing after the bombardment of the old city by WWII: it is an interesting mental exercise to stand here, and note that this church predates the oldest standing structures of the Spanish colonial experiment in New Mexico. The church itself is violently Iberian: a stone Roman Catholic edifice dotted with fading tapestries, chipped wooden sculptures of Christ and the disciples, and lightly-flickering candles. I was in Southeast Asia, but I was most reminded of my 2009 visit to Spanish Toledo: it was an entirely new form of exoticism.

manilacathedral

San Agustin is also known as the wedding capital of the city, and for good reason: there was one going on the morning I was there. I spied upon the extremely long ceremony from behind a grate and from the balcony where the antique pipe organ sits:  I never did manage to see The Kiss The Bride Part, and indeed, found it difficult to determine exactly when the ceremony ended. Thus is my knowledge of Catholic weddings.

I headed for lunch at the Ristorante Delle Mitre, acros the street from San Agustin. The restaurant is themed in a fashion that can only be described as “bishop,” with an extensive Philippine – Western menu where most of the dishes are named after either saints or former bishops.

porkplantains

Nuns in red and white habits circulate the place and man the kitchen, and the entire ambience is exactly that of a Cuban cafe in Tampa or in Miami. I ordered seafood chowder and an enormous pork knuckle in tomato sauce with plantains  and was deeply satisfied. They brought me San Miguel in a frosted mug the size of my head, with lime in it. I did not try the cafe con leche: for a nation that grows excellent coffee, the coffee that is actually served in the Philippines is an exercise in disappointment.

I left the church and walked a block off Intramuros, the street beside the Manila House Museum, and you are back in the Phillipines: I walked down a Sunday street populated by people sitting about doing nothing in particular, as befits the Sabbath, listening to music and eating deep-fried bananas. “Hey girl!” a middle-aged man in a tank top said to me, waving from the corner.

I waved back. Waving back is a good idea here.

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