#063: Butchers, Birds & Beggars: Manila (Philippines)Tak's dispatch released on 2 March 2016

Meat Butcher Basement in Manila

The crowd erupts in cheers as the ball glides through the metal ring, kissed briefly by the nylon net. The young players race to the other end of the floor, high-fiving each other. The scoreboard time continues rolling but the score is static, as the kid operating the scoreboard panel has briefly forgotten his role, swept up in the excitement.

You are sitting on a long bench under a metal roof in an open air basketball court. It looks to be newly constructed, with certain modern touches. For Banaue, it seems like the main entertainment attraction in this mountain town. People stand packed along the baseline that abuts the large transportation lot in the center of the downtown. Other walk up to catch a brief couple minutes of action before slipping away to continue their jobs, but mostly it seems, the town comes to a halt for the basketball games.

You are waiting for your overnight bus that will bring you back to Manila. What better way to spend the time than a tripleheader of games as you splay out watching. There is something special in a place like this, a small vestige of yesteryear glimmering through.

The thunderous sounds of rain, having started as a handful of petty splashes but now pelting the tin roof at full tilt, adds to the atmosphere. At half time, kids unfit for the teams whether due to age or otherwise, race onto the court and start shooting. A whistle blares causing the kids to chase the balls bouncing astray, an urgent attempt to clear the court promptly.

“Yes, I moved here from a poor village in the south,” she says, leaning over the counter. “I came here for work, but this is all that I could find.”

“How is Banaue? How is living here?” you ask, sitting up against a wall in the empty, brightly painted restaurant.

“It’s hard, I don’t know many people and it’s hard. I also don’t know the language, so that it makes it harder too,” she notes, referencing that in the Philippines there are over 120 languages, with 19 of those listed as official in some capacity depending on region. “I am happy to have a job though,” she offers with a strange mix of reluctance and optimism in her voice.

She seems enthused to have someone to talk to, an outsider who maybe understands, or at least, won’t take offense to her narrative. Separated from her family, making just enough to get by and isolated in a strange village in the mountains, this is her life.

You pull the blanket over your head to block out the metered blast from street lights, headlights from passing trucks, the action-movie flickering on the television and the cold air blowing through the ventilation system. The bus stops frequently to pick up additional passengers. You are glad that the seat next to you is empty, but realize that will not last. You slip in and out of sleep awaking to a new scene each time.

The bus pulls off into various towns which all seem quite alive for the late time of night. Every several hours it seems you are pulling off into a bus lot where vendors hawk snacks and passengers rush off to the sometimes crude, and sometimes clean, bathrooms to relieve themselves. You linger outside keeping the bus in sight, ensuring you aren’t marooned in a desolate transit hub. The warm air permeates your skin replacing the cold artificial chill.

You awake to the sun rising. The movie is no longer playing on the TV and the rays of the sun warm the bus just enough to be felt. The road is much more modern than it was hours ago with the sprawl of Manila in your window.

You recognize the area as the bus pulls in, and you jump off early in order to be closer to the metro station and to avoid the delays from the thick traffic plugging the streets.

Manila Air Pollution Haze Philippines

The metro ride into downtown Manila is much more civilized than the one you took from the airport. People are orderly, standing with enough space to breathe comfortably. When the door opens for a stop, it is possible to get out without a gladiator challenge.

The doors open and a large group of people exit. You walk to the window, letting the flood pass by. For them, it is another workday. You peer out from the window of the new station, looking down at the city below. The air is thick with a pollution-induced haze. With the early sun, it casts a golden glow over the wooden shacks. Clothes are hanging on stretched lines, waiting to dry. People, roosters and cars can be seen moving about.

Manila Intersection

You find your way down to the street level. You are at an intersection and now in the middle of the lovely Manila grit you observed from above. Traffic races by. A man sits straight ahead. Chain restaurants and signboards line the avenue, covered in a dirty film that seems unescapable.

Having no plan, you walk straight ahead until you hear a commotion coming from behind narrow window slats underground. When you find a crumbling stairwell, you take it. The air is cool and wet as you turn the corner to find a vast room filled with meat of every kind hanging from the ceiling, mounded on the counters and being sold in quick order.

You float through the space, trying not to draw much attention in this wonderland of sorts. Knives are hacking, slicing and sliding through whatever part needs cutting for the daily sale. Having taken in the experience fully, you exit the meat market room through a dark hall.

The sound of birds chirping is not typically what you would expect, but the sound of birds chirping is what you hear in this subterranean butcher hall. You continue forward and turn right, drawing closer to the sound.

Bird Seller in Manila

A muscular man with a thin frame and a bowl haircut is tending to the vast array of cages under flickering fluorescent light. He pauses and looks up and wishes you a good morning. “Do you want to buy any birds?” he asks with a laugh.

Streets of Manila Homeless

You feel a tug on the back of your shirt. You look down to your left and find a young girl with strange growths and open sores on her face and hands. You jump back. What is your reaction supposed to be? You don’t want to encourage the aggressive behavior, nor teach the adults that this is a good task for children. You don’t want to get some incurable infection. How heartless! How selfish. Yet, you can’t yell; it’s a young girl in bedraggled clothing with severe medical issues living amidst stagnant sewage ditches microscopically bubbling with tropical disease. You want to help, but where will the money go, what will the signal be? Does it encourage more of this?

You pass more children sleeping on the streets of Manila. Some sleep on cardboard. Some sleep with an adult. Many sleep by themselves. Their faces are covered in a dirty film, hair matted and dusty. Yet, when they awake and open to the city outside, the whites of their eyes are whiter than any perfect pearl could wish to be.

An hour ago, you walked by a golf course in the middle of Manila.

It’s a cruel world.

The sun is going down, casting a magical array of colours and shapes visible from the long Manila Baywalk, a long promenade running parallel to Roxas Boulevard. You stop to take a photograph when a man suddenly grasps and tugs at your arm. You jump back, pulling your camera from your eye and away from the stranger.

“Money, money?”

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New York, NY
Internationally-published photographer with a passion for creative food, fine products, unique cultures and underground music. Twitter / Instagram / Email

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