One City Block

It seems odd to dedicate a post to one city block. But for us, that’s Manila. And it’s one excellent block.

We arrived ahead of schedule in the Philippines not knowing that that was the last we’d see of that concept. From now on we’re in that hot climate, time is fluid kind of place. A place where “now” is unspecified and “15 minutes” is negotiable. Only you aren’t in on the negotiations.

So we waited for our hotel pick-up for about an hour. We perked up as each driver slowly strolled in and raised his sign. The 10 mile drive to the hotel took an hour and a half. But since the radio station featured a selection of Beyonce, Richard Marx and Filipino Christmas carols, there was never a dull moment. Life played out around us as it often does when stuck in a city street traffic jam. Guys selling bananas and dish cloths. Exchanging awkward glances with jeepney passengers. Counting the number of Western chain restaurants and convenience stores. Chaotic outdoor markets, shocking poverty, families of five packed on a single bike, houses made of potato sacks.

So after that kind of introduction, our hotel in Intramuros felt like an oasis. A white washed colonial gem in a city block of colonial gems amid a neighborhood that had been laid low time after time. Earthquakes, fires, invasions, war, squatters, all crushing any attempt to truly rebuild what had been a beautiful walled city. That city is now in the realm of vintage postcards and the extremely flexible imagination. But I think our city block gives the best glimpse.

The staff at our hotel treat Kalina like a princess and insist that Radek is a look-a-like for a local film star. They seem to tolerate me as well. The hotel is nice enough, if not a bit mildewy in the sticky humidity. But we decided to forego the musty, overchilled (is there any other AC setting in the tropics?) dining room and step out the back door into a magical wonderland.

The buildings that face the street on this city block are the rare examples of faithful reconstruction. Many other reconstructions in the historic district only include a first floor wall. That’s right, no building, just facade. And in many cases that facade is not complete, just concrete. Once “rebuilt” a plaque is erected listing all of the times the structure was destroyed and the date of “reconstruction.”

But the exterior walls of our city block boast not only buildings with interiors (all the better to contain the industrial 8′ tall refridgeration units known as air conditioning), but also a city-within-a-city of arched passageways and courtyards. There are stone staircases to second floor promenades, cobblestone paths, intricate tiled steps and fountains. There are dark leafy tropical potted plants generously festooned with lanterns. There is a festive atmosphere with live music, but also a cocooned walled off ease.

Am I indoors? Am I outdoors? Does it matter if it’s not raining? Am I sitting at the bar at Casa Blanca or Barbara’s? Does it matter if the drinks keep coming? (Just kidding, those days are over, we’ve got this kid, remember?)

Our city block has everything you need to fulfill your Foreign Correspondants Club, Graham Green, colonialist fantasy. But just one step outside the walls reveals a much harsher reality. And the spell is broken.


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