The last nilad tree: Manila

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Mangroves choking on trash
Manila was a tough end to our stay in the Philippines for several reasons:

First, it was hot. So very very hot. I am a person who likes the heat, even. I relished the 100-degree summers in the New Mexico desert when we lived there. But this was… oppressive, stifling, sweltering heat. Relentless equatorial sun, steamy humidity, and near 100 degrees that felt like 120. And we were out in the sun all day for two days.

Second, our arrival in Manila from Dumaguete simply underscored the fact that in the Philippines, everything runs late. Nobody gets anywhere quickly, it seems. Our flight was late (of course), and we had to sit on the tarmac when we arrived as well. Once out of the airport, we had to queue up for a taxi in a line more than 50 meters long, with taxis only trickling in every 10 or 15 minutes. We waited almost 3 hours for a taxi. We did well to resign ourselves to this fate, taking a cue from the locals who sat calmly reading books or playing games on their phones. This obscenely long wait, apparently, was no surprise to anybody except us. We didn’t get to bed until 1:00 am, and we were due for work rendezvous at 5:30 am. Ugh.


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Vegetables at the market.

Third, Manila is an enormous city of more than ten million people. It makes New York City seem immaculate and civil. Manila is hard, unapologetic, bristling. Manila is K-pop bars and toothless hookers and rats bigger than the street cats. Manila is a Ferarri cruising past shanty slums, blaring its music through the heat of the night. Manila is diesel fumes and grimy skin, a persistent cough you cannot seem to shake. Manila is beggar children and night basketball and roasting peanuts in handcarts.

We stayed in the Malate area, a very tourist-oriented part of town known for its bars and nightlife. This was not intentional, but the location was convenient enough for the work I had to do while there. Thus, our surroundings were uninspiring. We ate once at an expensive Korean restaurant, but from then on we opted for the street Ramen joint next to our hotel where we could watch passerby and enjoy 50-cent San Miguels.

One night, my brother wanted to walk down the block to a convenience store for some snacks. Ben and I returned to the hotel. Not three minutes later, Joe came storming into the lounge area, breathless, panting. “I just got my phone stolen,” he said. Pickpockets targeted him within 30 seconds of parting ways with us. The next day, we saw hundreds of stolen phones for sale on the street, but Joe’s was nowhere to be found.

Manila is hard.

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Fisherfolk children swimming in Navotas.

Lastly, the work I had to do there was emotionally draining. We connected with folk from the Save Freedom Island Movement for two days of touring the last remaining mangroves in Manila Bay. These mangroves are choked by mountains of trash washing in from the bay, and are additionally threatened by massive reclamation development projects. The fisherfolk who depend on the bay for their livelihoods are repeatedly displaced, their houses demolished by the government and the Manila Bay fisheries depleted by development and fish farming. The last reamaining nilad mangrove, for which Manila was named, struggles against trash and pollution, withering behind a small mesh fence on an island in Navotas. All of this was hard to see, but we learned a tremendous amount about the Philippines and the environmental threats they face.

Even though our last few days in the Philippines were difficult, the country certainly had its charms. For example, Philippinos love to sing, and they seemingly sing whenever the mood strikes them. On a jeepney, in the car, walking down the street, while working. Always singing.

As previoisly mentioned, the food was great, from barbeque to kinilaw to fried bananas drizzled with honey.

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Boating with the crew from Save Freedom Island Movement

And the activists we met were a great group, eager to share their stories with us and show us around the bay they work so hard to protect. All of them young leaders ho are quick to smile, resilient and determined even in the face of such intimidating obstacles. Even when humanity fails in its most basic duties all around them, or when their very lives are threatened for the work they do. Such optimism is refreshing sometimes.

After all, in the words of Confucius (who will surface again shortly in Vietnam):

Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.

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