The Kano Whom Came to Visit #4 – A Prescient Acceptance of Place and Space

Alice Navarro, our Filipina friend, lives in a three story, contemporary townhome in a large new development called Acacia Estates. It is a pre-planned residential village with anachronistic sounding, arboreal names for its subdivisions – Cedar Crest, Verawood, Mahogany Place, Rosewood Pointe. The entirety of the sprawling Acacia Estates is incomplete; some neighborhoods, including Alice’s, are still under construction.

Acacia Estates, Manila

Acacia Estates, Manila

After waking up on Day #1 in the Philippines and standing on the upstairs balcony of Alice’s home overlooking this neighborhood in progress – land of electrical poles and wires and searing sun basting neo-Asian architecture – all I could think was, This is the not the land of my imaginings.

Last night’s blur of nighttime Manila, manic and densely populated, with casual gatherings on every busy side street – the mini markets, makeshift watering holes: a bit of neon here, bodies reveling despite the heat, signage and sputtering taxis and a din and clatter all sweeping by the car window as Alice’s BMW slipped past the countless streetside vignettes of blessed night—. Such was the vision on the way in last night. With the sun beginning its scorching ascent on the balcony (this at only 7am), this unexpected boon of upward mobility was surprising to me.

Alice's porch

Alice's porch

Ordinarily I prefer to travel with basic knowledge of a place but no expectations. Expectation is the mortar of disappointment. Serendipity, on the other hand – those accidental discoveries, surprising delights and unanticipated educations – makes for better travel.

Still, visual presets linger in our minds. It’s impossible not to see images of a place, nor to go blindly somewhere without an inkling or any notions at all of what it will be like. So I have to confess, what I hadn’t expected to see in the Philippines was something like Acacia Gardens. It’s easy to forget that all countries are nations in flux; modernism and growth are not the sole domain of one’s own country. Time spares no one; it simply moves in varying speeds depending on where you are. Travel erases the sleepy romanticism with which we package our anticipations of a place.

Scale model:  Acacia Estates

Scale model: Acacia Estates

The Menu, 7am

Inside, breakfast was prepared for the two of us by the maid, a girl in her mid 20s who came with Alice’s sister when the sister and her two kids moved in with her at Acacia Gardens.

Breakfast was served on the second floor in a bright corner with tall windows adjacent to the large modern kitchen:

  • White rice
  • Semi-scrambled eggs
  • White bread
  • Dinuguan (Blood pudding)
  • Maruya (lightly fried bananas) with whole sugar
  • Coffee with non-dairy creamer
Breakfast, day 1

Breakfast, day 1

As we ate, Alice sat at the new dining table beside us and sipped her coffee sleepily. Even in the early throes of wakefulness she was talkative, thinking, organizing.

She talked rapidly to the maid in Tagalog and in a fluid mix of Tagalog and English with Arvin, being sure to switch to English when there was something to be said directly to me. Words flew by like clusters of atoms in the sky; 70% of what was said entirely escaped me, 25% I understood outright, and the remainining 5% I discerned through tone of voice and body language.

Alice looked at me at one point. “You don’t have to eat the dinuguan,” she said of the spoonful of pig’s blood pudding I held in my hand. “I don’t like it either.”

Where everything familiar is new again

After breakfast we went for a walk in the neighborhood, as we waited for our car to arrive to take us north. Alice was glad to be back in the Philippines after 16 years in the US, she explained, because her family is here. Her parents have a bedroom on the third floor. Her sister, niece and nephew bunk in the guest bedroom on the first floor – when guests like us haven’t overtaken it.

What Alice doesn’t like: all the people. The traffic. Service is slow in stores and establishments, she claims, yet outside of work everyone is in a hurry, bumping into you, standing in your space, talking right in your face. “Get back,” she motioned playfully at the breakfast table as she described her re-introduction to the Filipino workplace.(She works at a large international firm.)

House under construction, Acacia Gardens

House under construction, Acacia Gardens

When Arvin and I arrived last night, the house was dark. Alice showed us around and got us a jug of water from the kitchen. We walked past the maid, who was asleep on the living room floor. Her room is an ante-room in the back of the house, down the side stairs and past the dirty kitchen, which is an outdoor kitchen where most of the frying is done. It’s too hot in her room for her to sleep, so she takes respite on a patch of tile floor between the sofa and coffee table.

One flight up, Alice’s sister and her two kids were sleeping on the floor at the foot of Alice’s bed. “Air conditioning,” whispered Alice. We had a unit in our bedroom too, she said, not to worry. “And a fan.”

Acacia Estates - clubhouse

Acacia Estates - clubhouse

It was a strange entree – strange because it was unfamiliar. When we were growing up, my brother and I couldn’t stand sharing a bedroom together. I couldn’t fathom the two of us huddled up against our mother sleeping at the foot of our aunt’s bed.

In the morning, the veil of strangeness lifted. A prescient acceptance of place and space and total unexpectedness set in. In fact, I, a notoriously picky eater – I know the anatomical structure of every principal cut of beef and pork; I can dissect a chicken thigh in 28 seconds; I know the angle of the cartilage strand and artery that traverse a chicken breast – I. Ate pig’s blood for breakfast. The time for comparison of worlds had ended.

Anxious though I was about meeting the family, it was time to explore.

Morning walk white waiting for the car

Morning walk white waiting for the car


Breakfast in Texas: A lifeless stream of consciousness

Client dinner - San Antonio, TX

Where might be the *Irregular* Entrance?

SAN ANTONIO 7am – Holiday Inn Express

The lifeless men in the little lobby restaurant are eating breakfast. No, that’s untrue. Unfair. Not lifeless; their lives are elsewhere. They sit in the restaurant eating their grown up children’s cereal for breakfast while simultaneously staring up at the wall-mounted TV – all four of the men, each at separate tables, their heads in the same position – looking upward – the angle of their necks proportional to the distance of their cafe table from the screen.

This is travel for work.

Flying buttress overpasses - San Antonio, TX 2012

Flying buttress overpasses - San Antonio, TX 2012

Imagine the clumsy logistics of getting into your room while carrying two yogurts, a coffee, utensils, napkins and a bowl of manufactured cheese-stuffed eggs and an indescribable, curiously consistent meat patty product. This with no tray. Only a bumbling jumble of maneuvering.

This is work.

Inside, the morning news on the TV in Spanish. Weather in the neighboring state of Mexico. Next door neighbor, really; kin. Might as well be part of the Union. Check the day’s calendar and finish the task with a widening of the eyes. Finish yogurt and proceed to…it.

Still life of eggs and cheese with plastic utensils

Still life of eggs (L) and cheese (R) with plastic utensils - Holiday Inn Express SAT 2012

What is lifeless is the sausage patty. One assumes it is teeming with energy and life to nourish the body and give the brain a chemical lift to confront the day, but it is not. It is dead pig parts bleached to a shade of deceptive neutrality, its mimetic chant of yumminess triggering happy places in the brain – a faint rekindling of those moments way back when, when such a lifeless, slightly peppery thin slab of porky pig was a treat, instead of mere necessity.

As for the eggs, one can easily enough undo the simple robotic folding of the whipped egg product and scrape the toxic cheese out. It plops out more or less easily and neatly, never minding the oily residue it leaves behind on the egg-like construction. A bit of cheese remains, however – morning eyes don’t see it. There are no alarms to warn you. Its human fatlike consistency and irreal shade of orange evade detection. One bite of the contaminated egg and your gag reflex kicks in. Coffee. Hurriedly. Now. Drink. To wash away your sins – past, present, and unexpected.

Tomorrow: perhaps cereal downstairs with the old men.


The Kano Whom Came to Visit #3 – Life in Blur Motion

8pm, MNL

We arrived in Manila along with the sunset. The islands east of Luzon faded into the metallic haze of the ocean as we descended.

In the airport, passing through Immigration was a breeze.

Waiting for us at baggage claim was our friend Alice, who had returned to the Philippines for work after 18 years in the United States. Alice was seated on the edge of the carousel with her head down, immersed in the world of her iphone. My eyesight, as low-res as the lousy pictures that come out of my CrackBerry, were having trouble processing all the vagaries and newness of the blue-toned, green-aired blur of space.

Our baggage arrived towards the end, governed it seems by a de facto rule that balikbayan boxes1, of which there was a symphony orchestra’s worth, have precedence over traditional luggage.

We passed without hesitation through Customs, both of us using the line marked ‘Returning Overseas Workers’. It seemed the better of the two options: the other line was marked “Items to Declare.”


1 A balikbayan box is a square cardboard box of fixed dimension (24” x 24” x 24” ), usually white with the word “BALIKBAYAN” imprinted on it, which Filipinos who are returning to the islands from another country fill with gifts (pasalubong), clothing, electronics, etc. for their family. These boxes are ubiquitous in airports and are an integrated part of Filipino culture. For a more erudite discussion of balikbayan boxes, see “Balikbayan Boxes as Metaphors for Filipino American (Dis)Location”, by Jade Alburo.


To drive or be driven?

The first overwhelming sensation to hit you when you step outdoors at Manila International Airport is a Pacquiao-like triple pounding of heat, noise and the smell of diesel exhaust. After 20 hours in a manufactured environment designed to reduce the likelihood of rebellion, this moist smoky cloud into which we’ve stepped is disorienting and goes a long way in explaining the verve of a people with a centuries-long history of fighting off foreign invaders.

MNL Manila International at night

The first of a thousand logistical events that Arvin will have to address over the ensuring two weeks begins with car rental. The question: to rent and drive, or to rent and be driven.

Alice, unequivocably: “Get a driver.”

The relentless chatter of business taking place at the half dozen smoky enclosures at the rental car office elevates to a din. Taxis queue up outside. Cigarette smoke from idol cabbies weaves fractal patterns in the air. The heat creeps into the rental office whenever the door opens, defying the relief given by air conditioning.

car rentals MNL

After some negotiation – mind you, sentences in Tagalog are shorter than in English but multitudinous; discussions are more extensive; it takes a greater number of words to arrive at a conclusion of similar length – after logistical task #1 is accomplished, we head to the parking lot, to Alice’s car. We will stay the night at her new townhouse in Manila. At ten a.m. the following morning a car with driver will pick us up at her place and deliver us to Arvin’s family in the province of Bulacan, vicinity of Malolos.

Grunting acceptance amid the chaos of perpetual motion

By the time we left the airport and walked to Alice’s car, everything was a muted shade of dark. The sky was dark. The parking lot was dimly lit. As we exited the airport and got lost in the flurry of horns and headlights, fluid car lanes, buses stopping erratically, jeepneys flooding the shoulders, Manila itself became lit up in patches by billboards and traffic, all of them muted in brightness by the weight of the heat.

Billboards at Night - Manila, 2012

Billboards at Night – Manila, 2012

Along roadways both hurried and congested, where shadows of high-rises bit into the southeast asian night, we headed toward the Greenbelt, a modernist shopping and living zone on the fringes of Makati City, Manila’s financial district.

Alice grunted every time she hit the horn.

Traffic in Manila moves, in Alice’s words, like water molecules. Lines are painted on the roads but they’re merely suggestions of order. Drivers all jockey for position – buses, jeepneys, motorized tricycles, pedestrians and bicycles alike. Buses stop two lanes out from the curb to pick up passengers. “Everyone looks for an open spot and they sneak in, like water molecules in a funnel.” All this she discussed at rapid-fire pace as she wove in and out of empty spots in traffic. Well, not even empty spots: corners, wedges, bits of blank space which she transformed into openings for her benefit.

Given the sometimes slogging pace, though, and the relentless honking of horns, we seemed more like logs stuck in a downstreaming river.

9.30pm Greenbelt, Makati City

The Greenbelt is a modern stretch of high-rises and a large new shopping mall, in the midst of all of which lies a long strand of outdoor restaurants and clever waterways. There are parallels in Europe – the outdoor plazas of Spain, France’s many outdoor café clusters, Gazi in Athens – but no equivalents.

In the US we have, perhaps, Riverwalk in San Antonio, or restaurant rows with open patios along seaside streets in beach towns. In the first woozy hours of post-arrival somewhere, it’s tempting to look for equivalence. Similarity. The goal of travel is to be awakened, though. To find the unfamiliar.

Greenbelt, Makati City

We three have a dinner of tapas and red wine. Eminently familiar, hardly foreign. We get caught up. Conversation between Arvin and Alice speeds forward. Accustomed as Alice had become to America, she’s having difficulty getting re-acquainted with the ways of the Philippines. Me, I’m far too recent an arrival to have formed an opinion yet.

Arvin doesn’t hide fatigue well. The conversation turns to the topic of chilling red wine – a favorite topic of mine, I could linger there endlessly. In the tropics, chilling red wine is a requirement. But enough on that. I can tell Arvin’s OFF button is quickly going to self-activate.

To Acacia Gardens. Quickly. In a blur of Alice’s fast-moving, shadow blue BMW.

Greenbelt, Makati - Talking with Hands, 2012

Greenbelt, Makati – Talking with Hands, 2012

I hate word press sometimes


Ahh…bed. The wormhole of time and space has caught up with us.

Blessed horizonal sleep.

manila lights at night