For nightlife, the guidebook insists upon “going to streets parallel to Burgos,” then suggests certain bars “for anyone needing to escape the debauchery of nearby P. Burgos Street,” then refers to news bars that are “most recent to the P. Burgos area,” and finally, they suggest that the traveler “not have too many drinks or you may do something you regret in nearby P. Burgos street.” Nothing seems more tempting than the constant negation of an unexplored area. Don’t go to this area, surely don’t even think about the debauchery and sexual misconduct that goes on there, naughty traveler.
I’m stuck in Manila for two days with nothing to do but errands and phone calls. I’m always surprised when this kind of downtime occurs, though it happens every time. In India it was the 12 hour train rides, the constant delays and the English-instituted bureaucracy that required forms to be filled out for sending a postcard. In Laos it was the broken down buses and Visa delays.
The best kept secret about traveling is the downtime. At times, there is enough of it to read a book a day, enough waiting at stations and coffee shops to make my life as a grad student seem adventurous. Because I am an urban traveler, most other travelers I meet are waiting for something: a delayed flight, a Visa, a book to send, a letter to come in, a new credit card to replace a stolen one. Travelers spend far more time waiting than going to museums or tubing rides, yet we only remember the latter, since none of us ever consider photographing the train clerk who delayed us another day, the malfunctioning ATM machine or the pay phone where we spent hours attempting to catch a connecting flight.
Yet I have learned to treasure the downtime as a rare chance to follow the bureaucratic tape that privileges some–the English speakers, the rich, the obedient–while keeping constrained many others. We see just how irritating the system is and call it ‘backwards,’ ‘incompetent’ or ‘broken.’ Often, when I call airlines or bus companies, I am constantly asked to prove my worth by filling out loads of English applications, showing the credit with my bank, or providing testable phone numbers and addresses. When I am stopped at the entrance to a mall or bar and checked by security, this irritation is actually a common glimpse of a nation frequented by bombings, of a media exploiting constant fear of Islamic radicals in Mindanao, who demand independence, while the wealth of the nation’s resources happens to lie at their feet.
It is in the PC rooms, when I am attempting to wallow my day away, waiting for my bus to come in, that I see the dozens of Filipinas, some calling their white boyfriends over Skype, others updating their Farmville farms, watching Korean dramas, or taking tests for calling centers.
It is in the Starbucks and Coffee Beans where I witness the student groups in nurses uniforms, and the white expats apprehensive gaze, as they are devalued in a place that sees their whiteness as the norm.
It is in the gigantic malls of the Philippines where I stumble upon the most optical pleasures of a flaneur. The air of the malls are often called anti-septic, but that is wrong. It is not even dry, or cool, or refreshing–it is a constant tug of smells, coming from the dim sum carts, the iron of the hardware store and the ground beans from all the coffee shops. Dozens of languages are being spoken, advertisements are calling for attention from the shoppers moving at the speed of a Disneyland ride like the Haunted Mansion. We too only ponder what lies just beyond–the shifting lights, the underwear stands, the women in burqas wearing glass slippers, the ice cream stands barnacled with young people.
Of Robinson’s Mall in Malate there can be no doubt of te complexity, the Protean shape-shifting that the mall produces in the casual shopper. The advertisements of sexy white people and over-joyous middle-class families place their hold on the viewers like machines tweaking a piece of metal on an assembly line, shifting and shaping each undesirable piece into a recognized commodity. It is the Cosmopolitan feel of the mall that spits out the person as a product of a more global consciousness–that every stall in the food court exemplify an ethnic culture, that the movie theaters, the book, music and video games stores carry the same myths here as they do everywhere, and that we can all follow their narratives and be inspired by them. Yet let not this global farm be a means of mere escape from the outside, a mere stopping off point or air-conditioned fantasy away from the streets and slums of the city. Surely this opposition between mall and slum is a false one, for one finds the same Versace sunglasses and button-up clothes here as in the markets and nearby slums. One smells the same barbecued pork and finds the same DVDs, CDs and computer parts for sale in the unlit streets just outside. The difference is that the mall is a large privatized space where everything has its place, while the slums have no such assignments. Sure, there are areas primarily residential and others centered around business, but a mango stall can always become a goat’s bathroom, a cigarette salesman’s office, a cockfighting ring, a red light district, a basketball court, or a carpenter’s workshop. In the mall, if you are in a Victoria’s Secret, you are there to shop, and you must be searching always for that thing–“what are you looking for?” they all ask, when what they really mean is “what business have you in this place? A question for which only one answer can satisfy.
As I head down Mabini Avenue, the sex workers call in droves, but the language they hail me in is not English, but Japanese and Korean. “Ssimemassang!” They yell, “Anyong Haseyo!” And for a while I feel a warm pinch, that perhaps my language–my monolanguage–is not that of the sex tourist, and that it’s those wicked East Asians who are responsible for this particular debaucherous street. It is a strange feeling, to be sure, yet it passes quickly, when the male sex workers rush towards me, all speaking English, all convinced I am gay. Why don’t they speak Japanese?
The queer folk in Manila and Cebu have the same reputation as in any third world country, one of being aggressive as hell, and I’ve been followed ruthlessly into bars, clubs, buses, and to the door of my hotel, just for making eye contact. My most intimate moment with this stereotype came in a Cebu massage parlor, after I asked the clerk for a male masseuse to please my girlfriend. Unfortunately, a request for a male masseuse didn’t translate as “to please my girlfriend” but sounded more like a request for a male masseuse.
The gays I meet enlighten me about their strange position in the Philippines. They tell me the people are highly tolerant of them, and curse America’s homophobia. Yet they are concerned about the entertainment value of gays in their country. Almost every stand-up comedian is gay, and like blacks in the U.S., every movie seems to contain a ‘normal’ straight protagonist, and a token gay who provides comic relief and mystical magic. Though this may increase visibility, it also contains queer desire as an always othered element.