As I walked through the crowded streets of Manila, I received stares but enjoyed my relative anonymity that is nonexistent when I am on the small Sibuyan Island. All around me Filipinos went on with their lives, many crowding the lotto centers hoping to get lucky, others sitting with friends and families at carenderias and open air restaurants eating and chatting. Even the street urchins begging for money seemed happy as they yelled “merry Christmas” and “happy new year” and ceaselessly blew in their horns.
But a domestic dispute in the street with a crowd of onlookers gathered around reminded me that the dirty, crowded streets of Manila are not always joyful. A mother was hitting a teenager with a stick and her hand and yelling at him, while a young girl stood nearby bawling. As I walked past the crowd that was watching them I saw the teenager curl his lip up in raw anger as he fended off the mother, and half expected him to hit her.
At nightfall after pounding a large 500 mL Red Horse I strolled out to the Manila Bay boardwalk, and through the permanent carnival of games, food booths, and entertainment that lines the foul-smelling bay. Many Manileños were trying their luck tossing pesos on a board filled with numbers in order to try and win kitchenware like dishes and mugs. Children ran around and lined up for the small ferris wheel, an electric train, or some of the other rides. Magicians drew crowds of Filipinos – mostly adults – around them as they chattered and showed off tricks. A large Filipino with his girlfriend tried to knock over a pyramid of bottles with a softball and whiffed on all three – he laughed about missing, but looked frustrated with his public failure. Later I saw he using a small air gun to knock over figures and he redeemed himself by hitting several targets in a row, then looked over at his girl to make sure she witnessed his prowess.
Several of the bigger restaurants had stages with cover bands, and one of them launching into Stone Temple Pilots made me stop to listen for awhile; I moved on as they followed up with Alanis Morissette.
I bought some delicious, warm corn on the cob from a smiling girl who wished me a happy new year; and wished I had more room in my stomach for all the amazing food vendors – from green mangoes to peanuts (boiled, roasted, salted), popcorn, to the larger booths with all kinds of meat offerings from fried, to adobo, to bbq. After downing a shwarma I sat down to a meal of rice, bbq chicken, and pork and as I ate the man working the grill looked over and asked with a grin and a thumbs up how the food was. I devoured the food and returned the thumbs up, and later gave him my compliments which made him beam from ear to ear.
I paid 30 pesos (about 75 cents) to try the ball toss, and after knocking down two towers in a row I was kindly informed that those didn’t count because not every single can had been knocked over. The young Filipinos nicely gave me a few extra throws, and I managed to win a keychain but declined going again.
Further up on the shut-down Roxas Boulevard and through the impressive security, who was mostly there to make sure people didn’t walk in without going through the pretty lax body search; booths of Smart and other companies gave away free promos – Emperador Light gave out free shots of their nasty sweet brandy.
A DJ standing front of a Macbook frenzily went through every pop song imaginable, to crowds of a few hundred Filipinos who were quietly standing, watching the stage or big screens, and waiting for midnight. I decided to check out Rizal Park, and on the way passed through a plaza where an emcee was raffling off gifts to barangay members courtesy of the patron who sat nearby.
In the alleyways and empty lots right next to the glitteratzy of high rise buildings and fancy hotels of Malate, the poor stretched out on cardboard and cooked meager meals on open flames from metal cans. They shared meals in groups, and the youth lit off loud firecrackers that echoed against the tall, fancy wealthy buildings around them.
The U.S. embassy had lit up wreaths decorating the endless walls that stretched for longer than any building around; walls which each morning kept hordes of Filipinos at bay as they hopefully wait in line for hours in order to try and secure a visa to the United States.
At Rizal Park thousands of people stretched out on the grass, many of them sleeping as they waited for midnight. Towards the back of the park couple occupied dark nooks away from the lights, and in the front a heavy metal band was replaced by one of the first bands I had heard in 5 months in the Philippines that sang Tagalog songs and not pop music covers. About 30 minutes before midnight a light sprinkle sent hundreds of people streaming toward the park exit, despite the fact that it only lasted for 15 minutes. The lead singer sweetly tried to entice the audience to participate, however mostly the crowd stood and watched, or chatted amongst themselves. The next band culminated with a not very good rendition of Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years” as the male lead singer struggled to hit the notes and failed even more to have the audience sing with him.
As they started the countdown at last the fireworks at Ocean Park had already started. The fairly impressive fireworks display which reflected against the high rise tower that mostly blocked another fireworks show nearby.
The fireworks lasted about 15 minutes, then as I walked back to the pension the streets echoed with loud reports as people lit off their own firecrackers, several of which shot horizontally out of control and so I opted for a longer route out of the way of the amateurs and as their fireworks exploded loudly overhead I wondered how the tall buildings around weren’t hit.
Back at the pension a group of young Peace Corps Volunteers were sitting around and I offered a quick smile but headed straight up to bed without stopping to chat. Late, late, late in the night a drunken Peace Corps Volunteer stumbled into the dorm, and when I woke up the next morning he was naked and inadequately covered by his sheet – my first sight of 2015.