[From my column OBVIOUSLY OPAQUE in the UTS Voice, December 16-31.]
It was 1 am in Manila and pitch dark out- side. Not the pitch dark as it used to mean in the stories of our grandmas, but the pitch dark that has come to define nights in modern metropolitan cities. Rather, it was not even of that sort. It was that kind of darkness that slowly descends upon the so-obviously-artificial and so pathetically impersonal buildings that house international airports across the world and then engulfs them in a yellowish light that sickens one more than soothing him or her.
Tired and sleepy, I had just come out of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, Paliparang Pandaigdig ng Ninoy Aquino in Filipino, that serves travelers flying to Manila, the capital city of Philippines and was looking around for the placard that would have my name, most probably terribly misspelt as I had found more often than not. There was none, neither the placard, nor the person who was supposed to be there for taking me to my hotel. I looked around and around to find him and failed. There was I, stranded in a city I knew nothing of and forced to fend for myself in the dead of the night.
Quite obviously, the visit had not started quite on the note a regular traveler would want it to, but then, I was not a regular tourist either, I did not belong either to those from leisure class out on enjoying a break or the backpack- ing tribe out to explore a city, or even a country, on a shoestring visit. I was in Manila to participate in a workshop discussing food security in Philippines and a little ironically, even chairing a session as an ‘expert’. Ironically, because I am no expert on Philippines and knew nothing more than the basic history and political economy of the country but then such are the vagaries of international nongovernmental activism that makes experts out of rank outsiders.
The ironies did not stop there. I was stranded at the airport of the capital city of the country once referred to as the ‘pearl of the orient’ for the central location it held in the pacific ocean and was now reduced to not a very flattering position of being the main supplier of manual labour, domestic help to be precise, to places like Hong Kong. Being a member of the human rights community, I was destined to meet many of them regularly and had learnt, to my horror, that several of them were trained professionals like software engineers unable to find a job in their country. Needless is to say now that it is not going to be a regular travelogue. It just cannot be.
It was 2 am now and I, having finally managed to hire a cab to my hotel, was on my way to a much required sleep. Outside the windows of the cab were dimly lit to washed out in white floodlight buildings not inferior to even the best, worst in fact, jungles of concrete that dominate the skyline of any major urban centers of the contemporary world and this was unsettling me to the core. Whom did these skyscrapers belong to? Did the Filipinos working in Hong Kong as housemaids came from the same country which had the money, and technology, to erect such ugly but functional buildings?
Similar was the maze of the roads my cab- bie was taking me through. They seemed to come straight out of posters that dominated the election campaign of the person allegedly responsible for the worst organized pogrom of Muslims in India since partition and who was now trying to have an image makeover of being a ‘Vikas Purush’; Development Man for those who need a translation. Many thousands nautical miles and a few oceans away, quite evidently, he was doing the same which the ruling classes had achieved here more than a decade ago. Philippines was one of the very first countries that had succumbed to the dik- tats of the Bretton Woods Institutions, International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to be precise and embarked upon a path of economic destruction sold out to them as the panacea for all their economic woes.
They had lapped the opportunity up and soon turned into ‘Tiger Economies’ and equally sooner crashed like a house of cards. The irony hidden in all this was unmistakable, what else could happen to economies referring them- selves as tigers, an endangered species that dominated the wildlife once, and is now at the verge of getting extinct because of the greed of the humans. Well, as this article is neither about economies nor tigers, I would not bore you anymore and would get back to Manila.
Next morning, I found myself waking up to a bright sunny day, such a welcome break from the biting chilly winds that starts piercing Hong Kong since early November, and came out of the hotel to soak in some sun. I was not to find any. It was a jungle of concrete denser than I had ever been in, and I have been in quite a few. There were malls, malls and more malls everywhere. Yes, Philippines, the world suppli- er of housemaids is also the country that has a man with a vision. The vision of opening malls, named SM Malls in fact in every neighbour- hood of the city. Never mind whatever this vision would do to the small grocery stores that operated on the principle of faith and saved food security of the poorer families by selling to them on credit.
I was thinking about the debate on foreign direct investment in retail that was taking place in my country. No, I had not come across a single Walmart superstore in any of the Filipino cities I roamed around, stayed in or simply passed by over my two week stay in Philippines. There were none, not in Cavite, in Paranaque, in Quezon, in Makati. That did not mean a thing though. There were SM malls. They sold everything, from stationary to steel utensils and from fridges to frozen food. They sold ‘fresh’ vegetables as well. Those cauliflowers packed in transparent plastic looked fresh, very fresh indeed.
Vying with SM Malls was the omnipresent golden arches of McDonalds. The Spaniards that colonized the country were long gone. Long gone were, also, the Americans that came after the Spaniards. Imperialism did not go back with them though, it was here to stay. It was to stay in the form of the charm offen- sive of these arches that sold rice, of all things, along with their burgers. Vying with McDonalds, in turn, were Jollibee’s, Shakey’s, and whatnot’s. All of them were big chains and not stand alone shops that sell their stuff based on the reputation built over years.
Of course, there were stand alone shops in poor neighbourhoods. They are bound to be there for the region is also a home for people compelled to live in Boathouses, however romantic that may sound, with no electricity and water. It is home to melancholically named Freedom Islands going to be demol- ished soon. It is home to workers toiling hard in Cavite, the biggest Special Economic Zone in Philippines. The government, though, calls them Export Processing Zones and ensures a continuous supply of labour to the factories in them even if that comes at a cost of forcing the workers to live in dungeons.
These workers need to eat, even if merely for ensuring that they are fit enough to work and reproduce a future generation of cheap and expendable labour force and because they need to eat, and dress, there would be shops catering to them as well. However much you listen to Corporate Social Responsibility crap, rest assured that those shops would not be run by any McDonalds or Jolibee’s or even a watered down version of them. They would be shops of the underclass. I did manage to explore that side of the fence, but more about them in the next part.