Wednesday, September 5, 2012

I Keep Coming Back To Manila

Nothing in life is constant, except change. Not my words, some wise author said that. In my life what has remained constant was leaving and coming back home to Manila. At 17, I left Manila to study in one of the top colleges in the US, with the promise to my parents to return home for every holiday. I did return home after college. But the bite of the travel bug dug deep into my system. I shook it off by exploring the 7,100 islands. But seven years ago, I packed my bags, bid Manila goodbye and headed to Australia. My graduate degree opened more doors, leading me to a new life in Singapore, writing my second book, and eventually moving to Hong Kong. But as one wise nun told me as I had confided my sentimental decision to leave Manila, “A choice is several final. You can also choose to come back.” Last year, I chose to return to Manila.

In my fourteenth year as a food and travel writer, I had embraced my reality as a global citizen. I welcomed the bright sunny days in Manila and seeing friends and family more often than just a few days a year. I got behind the wheel on my old van. But this time, I was shrieking and cursing jeepney drivers who stop and go without warning. I was not at all amused when the tricycle driver raised his left leg while driving to signify, he was turning left. “Great, traffic rules are mere suggestions,” I painfully realized. There seemed to be an oversupply of salesgirls packing and wrapping my purchases in malls. They laughed and gossiped, as my needs a customer was a mere second priority. It was reverse culture-shock, as my friend Jeff warned me, “Maida, after living for 9 years in Singapore. My first three years back in Manila felt like a migraine everyday.”

My return to Manila was peppered with trips abroad for work: Bhutan, Argentina, Singapore, Australia, Thailand, and Myanmar. While I reveled at discovering fascinating exotic destinations, Manila was like a persistent lover. He wooed me repeatedly. It was not in grand big gestures, but slowly revealing his authentic self.

Sounds Familiar
Everywhere in the world, Filipinos have a reputation as musically inclined. Most of the time the bands in hotels, cruise ships, and resorts are Filipinos. Back in the country where people in bathroom attendants to karaoke salesmen can be belt a song, beautiful music played. I met Jim Paredes’ older sister, Lory. This beautiful morena is herself a balikbayan from the US. She and her siblings burst into song at the drop of a hat. One night, she invited me to Skarlet Bar to join her and her clan to listen to what she calls the best band in town. Across a Shell gas station, in one of these scout streets in Quezon City, a street I had often passed is a small jazz club. On a packed evening, it could accommodate about a hundred guests. On nights when AMP plated, every seat in house was taken. Jim and Lory’s nephew, Joey Quirino played on keyboards along with Mel Villena and the their 11-piece band. It was indeed Manila’s best-kept secret. For P350, it was live music at its finest. The band played their hearts out. It was as if you got a special pass to Mel Villena jamming with his closest pals. The audience was a diverse crowd of unpretentious 20-somethings to six-somethings hooting, clapping, dancing, and laughing the night away, as we downed several bottles of San Miguel Pale Pilsen beer.

I later learn from Joey that AMP stands for Asosasyon ng Musikong Pilipino. The 21-member big band jams one scheduled Monday a month in Skarlet Bar. During the day, Mel Villena works as a musical director, but on this evening he plays all the tunes he wants like standards “Bluer than Blue” to “Play that Funky Music.”  Every single member of the band is a top jazz musician. Renowned Saxophonist Tots Tolentino brought the house down. Coming all the way from Pampanga was Mon David, doing his vocal stunts with the band. Mel, his bandmates and the young musicians they were mentoring were all smiling ear-to-ear. To witness people passionately performing and doing what they loved best, it was priceless. The energy is simply infectious and joyful. By the end of the evening, the roomful of strangers had quickly becoming smiling acquaintances bound together by a spirited evening of jazz jamming.

To Market, To Market

Wherever in the world I go, I seek out the market. It is in markets that you get the true vibe of the community. The other reason is a sentimental one. Since I was a little girl, going to market on Sundays was a bonding time with my mother. I revived this tradition with my mother. We returned to our routine of going to Sidcor, an anything goes Sunday market once located in Edsa-Cubao, moved to a hospital parking lot, it now returns in to Edsa in the mall parking lot of Sentris. The vendors are now familiar faces. The man selling balut and suman from Pampanga with his moustache knows to offer us Tamales for my father. We know where to get fresh oily salted duck eggs at P8. We leisurely go through the cheap export overrun brand name clothes. We take time to pet the puppies for sales. I smile back at the lady selling herbs. We chat a bit. But after the third attempt with a Rosemary plant I knew growing herbs were not for me. We leave sidcor with our stash of fresh veggies and seafood for the week, plus Sunday lunch for the brood.

On other Sundays, we head to Legazpi market in Makati. The market vendors as well as the shoppers are more posh here. It caters to more expats, with tourist buses even dropping by. From organic vegetables to an international selection of home cooked dishes to handcrafted bags and jewelry, and plants, it was all in this Sunday market. The squid ink paella here is as authentic as it gets. But it is the warm and relaxed amabiance that makes shopping a joy here. Mara Pardo de Tavera, an organic and Slow food advocate and organizer of this market, takes time to chat and catch up. Tita, who makes travel blankets out of Abel Iloko fabric, shows me here new creations. I call tita, the lady who makes jewelry and tells me about her relatives in Iloilo as if we were really related.

There too is Greenhills market, where Nessie, our fruit vendor bursts into a hearty laugh when she sees us. She fills our bags with Mangosteens, lanzones, durian, and other fruits in season. The man making bibingka I had photographed years ago, nods at me with his eyebrows moving up. His hands are busy at work making sure the rice cakes don’t burn.
Bagwang made of Pork Jowl---crrrrunchy!

One night I visit new incarnations of the market, called Mezza Norte. It is the Quezon city version of the highly successful Mercato market. From 6pm to 2am, a fiesta of new food vendors selling their latest food innovation. With free samples, we bite into pork cracklings. What truly tempted us to indulge in a cholesterol feast was Bagwang, an innovation from the Ilokano Bagnet. Instead of using the belly they use pork jowls. The result is a super crunchy crackling. Think of a thicker, crunchy version of bacon. We sample a noodle dish from Tugeguerao as well as the Wagyu lady’s tapa. But the best treat for me was the ice cream from Merry Moo. They had interesting flavors like bacon, but Salted Caramel was their best concoction.

Cooking the Tugeguerao Pancit

Nothing wasted with skewered Isaw (intestines) and other innards
I liked their salted caramel ice cream


Finding a New Take on the Old in New Manila at 10A Alabama

I grew up in New Manila. I knew it like the back of my hand, or so I thought. When I learned about 10A Alabama an artsy place in New Manila, I was dumbfounded. “Where the heck is, Alabama?” I asked my mom. I asked the family driver. They were just as perplexed.  Two weeks ago, I took a little outing to a side street off E. Rodriguez. It is easy to miss the white gate, with a painted blue drawing of an ornate bird. No signs. The gate was locked with a thin wire. I lift the wire, and enter the gate like an intruder. A few men were working on furniture. One worker approaches me and I ask if they are open for business. He leads me to an old house. But my eye wanders around me. Bottles of old red horse beer turned into a chandelier. Old electric fan cases turned into light fixtures and Mongol pencils merged together into wall art. A petite young lady approaches me. “I’m Arlene,” she tells me. I had entered Resurrection, a Furnitures and Founds objects gallery. Arlene and her two partners give new life to old furniture. Arlene is an artist, and her partner Leah is an architect. Leah’s aunt used to live in this old house. But now they go to junk shops and repurpose old furniture. The araro once used to till the ricepaddies now looks gorgeous as a coffee table. No two pieces are alike. The mood is relaxed, as it feels like a hobby more than a business.

New life to old cabinets
Mongol Pencil Art

Playful art blocks
All around crate cum side table

I realize that you can never assume you know a place well. I thought I had known my hometown, New Manila, really well. I was wrong. There were still suprises to be discovered. Leah handed me their name cards. It was an old card catalogue turned business card. It said, “First Life! Card Catalogue, Second Life! Business Card, Third Life! Book Mark, Give it a Fourth Life.”

The light bulb sparked in this balikbayan’s head. The pattern becomes clear. I keep leaving Manila. But I will keep returning. With each return, Manila may frustrate me anew. But over and over again, Manila will charm me with its music, its food, its art, and warm people who give this city a heart.

 Copyright2012MaidaPineda. follow me on Facebook/maidastouch and twitter/themaidastouch and instagram/themaidastouch.

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