Dispatch from Manila


April 5, 2006


Browse in Philippines

We landed in Manila a few hours ago, and now we are out in Cavite, which is a kind of a Third World slurb on the outskirts.  The road to here is a welter of cinderblock and corrugated metal, heat and rust.  Medical and dental offices sit unpromisingly next to welding shops and piles of trash.  The dumps are full again.  It’s a chronic problem.  It’s a country of chronic problems.  The people are resourceful and resilient, but somehow the  whole does not congeal.

My in-laws live in a small subdivision off the main road.  At first, to an American, it might seem a borderline slum.  The houses are close together, with gates or walls around them.  They are small, and there is the omnipresent decay and rust.  But in fact the place is middle class, and on the rise.  There is lots of rebuilding going on.  But the main thing is this: by some miracle, the place was designed, or at least laid out, on a traditional village model.  The streets are narrow, like alleys, and winding.  There are little parks tucked here and there, one of which has been taken over by a man who raises fighting cocks.  The main park has a basketball court (basketball is a national passion) and a large gazebo for meetings and the like.

It is a Third World version of the New Urbanism, which actually is the old village-ism.  I spend much time when I am here, wandering the alleys, chatting with people.  There is something about a setting such as this that invites interaction, even with a caucasion visitor such as myself.  The last time we were here, my son and I (he was a little over one at the time) would wake up around 5:00 AM, in the heat, and take a walk to the park where the fighting cocks are.  We got to know the trainer — this  is serious business  — and his early morning pals.  That led to chats about politics, the Muslim rebels in the South, and on it goes.

Today I took my son (who now is three) and two of the cousins to another little park in the barrio, this one for kids.  The swings and slides are vintage 1940s, iron and metal and not the better for wear.  There is concrete under the swings and the rest is dirt.  My son had a great time.  He loves to be with his cousins; the equipment was less important than the interaction and the play.  We Americans are so rich in stuff; sometimes we forget the life, and the kinds of settings that promote it.