Saturday, November 12, 2011

Manila: Xmas, shops, and ‘I want to marry that girl’

            HONG KONG – I’m now at the Hong Kong airport, on a layover, thinking about Manila and running and thinking about Manila and not running.

I had a run that I would rather forget. At dusk one night, I ran inside a gated Makati neighborhood – an exclusive part of the city -- and then rather foolishly went out the next morning at 6 a.m. A few minutes into the morning run, I wasn’t running. I was out of breath. So I walked. I started up again, and I stopped again, covering four blocks. My run-walk continued for a half-hour.

I’m not sure if it was the Manila humidity, the air, jet lag, or general fatigue from my life of too much travel, but it didn’t matter. I had one choice. No more running for a few days. And when I don’t run, a couple of things happen. One is that I have time.

So I explored Manila in a different way, just not in my running shorts.

It was hard to avoid experiencing how the city was gearing up for Christmas, even in the second week of November. My five-star hotel, the Makati Shangri-La, produced a “lighting of the (fake) trees” ceremony in its giant entryway.  The hotel brought out a choir of women all dressed in red floor-length gowns who sang from the top of a curving staircase. They hired a woman who wore a flowing golden gown and who belted out Christmas tunes as she walked down the stairway. She burst into a Motown song at one point, and the Filipinos in Red shook like they were from African-American sisters from Detroit.

The hotel also erected a two-story-high artificial Christmas tree, which stood in the middle of a forest of artificial one-story trees. And running around them were a bunch of elves, or girl-thin women dress in red skimpy outfits with caps on their heads.
A crowd witnessed the spectacle, of course. Who wouldn’t want to see this? Everyone had some sort of camera, either real ones or those on phones or other devices. (People were forever taking pictures in this hotel, even in the elevators, of themselves.)

Later, when I talked about this scene to a Filipino friend who had come to take me shopping (I had to find time for that), she said, “We’ve been celebrating Christmas since September! This is a late party!”

Shopping followed. Bernie, the mother of a friend in DC, took me to a shopping mall an hour’s drive away. Inside was a kind of an upscale flea market featuring knock-off brand clothes and bags, pearls, coral jewelry, hand-made bags, and Santa-and-elf figures. Plus a lot of Jesus statues.

(Did I mention the Philippines was “100 percent Catholic”? It’s not, of course, and in fact the Muslim population is large in certain areas, but people like to joke (sort of) about it.)

Bernie is a shopping pro. All foreigners need Bernie to take them by the arm. We had a short strategy session beforehand (I was looking for over-the-top pink/oranges/reds polos for my suddenly fashion-conscious 17-year-old boy; jewelry; anything locally made) and she marched into the place. I struggled to stay two steps behind.

We wandered into a maze of little booths selling thousands of strands of pearls and coral beads. We waded deep into the booths selling polos on major discounts. We found woven handbags, including some with coconut shells, and silk ties going for $5. “Give him your lowest price,” Bernie kept telling them.

When they lowered their price, Bernie would say, “No, I said, your lowest price.”

So we bargained and bought presents at their “lowest price,” and I filled a couple of bags, and felt like Christmas was here, even if it wasn’t.

But the best non-running moment was a third excursion – to a massage parlor. I went with my two companions on this trip. (The purpose of this trip, by the way, was to report on how the Philippines has attacked the ancient disease of tuberculosis.) Toward the end of the week, the three of us, all guys, found an upscale massage place and treated ourselves to an hour of massage.

It was heavenly.

When it was over, as I changed back into my clothes next to Riccardo Venturi, an Italian photojournalist who is working with me, I asked him how it was.

“Oh,” Riccardo said, “I want to marry that girl.”

“That good?”

“If I don’t marry that girl, the girl I marry will have to know how to massage like that girl.”

 We laughed. He said it was his first massage.

“First professional massage,” he said, correcting himself. “Shall we come again?”


“Tomorrow night?”

We later went out for a beer, a San Miguel, which everyone in Manila calls a “ladies’ beer,” probably because it’s so light. I enjoyed the ladies’ beer, the massage, the lowest-price shopping, and the elves and the two-story-high fake Christmas tree. This was not a running trip, perhaps for the best.


  1. John....please take care... Hope you are all a-okay! Hugs to you and safe travels. Love reading your blogs!
    xoxo Lynne

  2. This blog made me smile! Sending that smile and good energy over to you now!

  3. Love the details on your stories! Thanks for giving us a glimpse of Manila. Hope you are able to run happy again soon.