It takes a strong stomach and a steely gut to love Manila. Even then, you have to take small sips at spaced intervals to build your resistance. Because if you take it in all at once, Manila will overpower your senses, knocking you unconscious until the morning after when you’ll find yourself hurling over the toilet bowl and swearing you’ll never ever drink again as long as there’s breath in your hungover body.
Unlike Boracay, Manila is not a dainty glass of margarita topped by a tiny umbrella. Manila is that dark drink in a plain lowball glass, a pungent concoction of spirits that have no business being mixed with each other. It’s the one served to you by the bartender with a devilish smile on his face. Ask him what’s in it, and he’d only say, “You wouldn’t want to know.”
But you do. Out of curiosity, you sneak a peak at the labels of discarded bottles.
Vintage 400 years, says one label.
Fermented in American and Spanish distilleries, says another.
There are a couple more, written in Chinese and Japanese characters you can’t decipher.
The bartender catches you and says, “Some things are meant to be experienced, not learned. Just drink it.”
But what you see in the glass makes you want to quit before you even start. Reflected on the inky surface is an intricate maze of backstreets filled with secrets of the homeless, penniless, and lawless. The main roads aren’t any better, with buses whizzing down the highways, jeepneys darting in and out of traffic, and pedestrians ignoring the bright pink MMDA signs that say “Bawal tumawid, may namatay na dito,” which roughly translates to Don’t cross, someone already died here.
And the smell! An olfactory assault of mustiness reminiscent of sweat, smoke, and petrichor sneaks up your nostrils. Chaos and confusion in concentrated form, that’s what Manila is. Still, you’ve come this far; there’s no turning back.
As you take a sip, your tongue burns from the potency of the thick liquid, and your first instinct is to spit it out. But you force yourself to swish it in your mouth and get all your taste buds covered. After a few moments, the fire turns into warmth and the acidic sensation gives way to several distinct flavors.
You first detect spicy glamor, something you didn’t expect based on Manila’s nondescript appearance. You can taste it in Makati’s vibrant clubbing scene that springs to life as soon as the sun sets down Manila Bay. It’s in 71 Gramercy, where the rich, famous, gorgeous — and those aspiring to be — gather to party against a backdrop of stunning views of the glittery skyline; in Palladium, where EDM junkies gyrate to the spins of international DJs and the pulses of its ever-changing LED walls; and in Black Market, where underground music aficionados convene in a warehouse-style club reminiscent of a bomb shelter, albeit an industrial-chic one.
Taguig refuses to be left behind, of course. It has Club Haze with the crazy lights, Hyve with the laid-back lounges, and Privé Luxury Club with the posh interiors. Whatever party Makati can throw, Taguig can throw it right back, giving revelers every excuse to hop from one club to the next until the wee hours of the morning.
The older crowd gets its share of the all-nighter fun, too. But instead of clubs, carpeted casinos of Paranaque’s Solaire and Pasay’s Resorts World get first pick, the steady ka-ching of slot machines taking the place of DJ beats.
Beyond the spice, there’s another flavor. It’s the oakiness of nostalgia, that wooden taste which only the passage of time can produce. It’s in Binondo, the oldest Chinatown in the world, still thriving with its large Chinese community; in Intramuros, a once majestic walled city, still holding on to its former beauty in spite of Fort Santiago’s crumbling fortress; in Manila Cathedral, the church that served as silent witness to centuries of Spanish reign, still standing after numerous reconstructions; and in Luneta, a historical urban park dedicated to Rizal, still offering shelter to lovers and vagabonds alike. In spite of the rise in condominiums, malls, and business centers, they remain a stoic reminder of the painful lessons of history, the gateway to Manila’s past.
Underneath the oaky flavor is the tarty, almost sweet taste of indulgence. Perhaps it’s because of Pasig’s Kapitolyo. Or Quezon City’s Maginhawa Street. Or Makati’s San Antonio Village. Could it also be Aguirre Street in the south? Or Eastwood City in the east? What about scheduled markets, like in Salcedo? And Mercato and Banchetto while you’re at it, too? Or the countless restaurants scattered all over the city, whether hidden in secret side streets or gobsmacked in the middle of a giant mall? Because if there’s one thing that’s never lacking around here, it’s great food. Even sidewalk vendors have something delectable to offer, like fishballs, isaw, and betamax (no, not the phased-out format for movies — more like grilled blood). There’s also balut, known to foreigners as the hairy duck fetus meant to be avoided at all costs (but they still love it in spite of themselves). Don’t forget ice scramble and dirty ice cream, which is dirty in the same way a dirty martini is.
That’s only street food. On the other end of the spectrum are swanky buffets with Shangri-La’s Circles and Sofitel’s Spiral. Beyond Filipino cuisine, these buffets offer a smorgasbord of international treats, taking patrons on a gustatory travel around the world in hours, and without getting them on a plane.
And then, there’s that salty taste of resilience. It’s the sweat forming on the forehead of an office employee standing in line at the Araneta MRT station, or on the back of a construction worker laboring on C5 under the heat of the midday sun. It’s the tears of devotees praying in churches — from Padre Pio Chapel in Libis to the Redemptorist Church in Baclaran — and rising up their silent pleas to the heavens above.
This is Manila. You’ve never tasted anything quite like it. And you never will.
But just when you think you’ve done it, swallowing that hot and dry liquid down your throat, the kick comes so fast and so sudden you almost reel. Lest you forget, this is Manila — rebellion will always be in its mix. In ’86, armed with nothing but flowers and prayers, it took to the streets to oust a tyrant. Before that, it struggled against foreign masters for four centuries until it triumphed by wielding Rizal’s plume and Bonifacio’s bolo. And now, left with plenty of frustrations but no actual battle to fight, Manila is teeming with a new breed of revolutionaries — those who don’t tote guns or knives, but paintbrushes, pianos, and pens.
Their rebellious streak finds expression in the live music of Makati’s Saguijo, a cafe/bar that flashes a figurative middle finger to commercialized music’s face by giving indie groups and unsigned bands their moment to shine onstage. The same goes for Mogwai in Quezon City’s Cubao Expo. The crowd may be different — more hipster than hippie, more artsy than yuppie — but the intent is similar: to give musicians and other artists their own sanctuary, safe from the strains of Justin Bieber songs (unless played ironically).
It’s in downtown Manila’s Escolta as well. What used to be the center of fashion and commerce is now a faint shadow of its former self, but it won’t go into the night that easily, not when the Saturday Future Market serves as a slow but promising start to a full revival of Escolta’s glory days. Located across the neo-classical Regina building, the Market is a once-a-month gathering of local artists and their unique fares, which include vintage posters of Guy and Pip, earrings made from pop tabs, and tote bags emblazoned with “Atom Araullo Pregnancy Club” at the front.
Such unusual finds evoke images of another artists’ haven, Makati’s The Collective. Here, music, art and food form a quilt of colorful patches as eclectic as the people who drop by for a visit. Is there another place that can offer costumes, longboards, ukuleles and mochi balls all at the same time? No wonder it’s called The Collective.
Manila, in spite of the reputation that precedes it and the austerity that it presents itself with, is a brew of exotic flavors just waiting to burst in your mouth and work into your bloodstream. It’s not necessarily delicious per se, but definitely interesting. An acquired taste, it is. You’re glad you took the risk, because you would never have guessed it otherwise.
A word of warning: You either consume Manila, or it will consume you. But once you’ve accustomed yourself to it, you’ll come back for more, over and over again, because you’ll realize nothing else quenches your thirst or gives you a buzz the way only Manila can.