Solace in the city

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 September, 2007, 12:00am

It's a hot summer's day in Manila, and jeepneys (taxi vans) are growling and smoking their way down gridlocked Taft Avenue. Brows bead with sweat and handkerchiefs cover noses to filter out the fumes. Cautiously, I step out into the road and scramble into a jeepney, bumping my head on the roof. I pick my way, crab-like, past knees and feet to the narrow edge of a perch that the passengers have squeezed up close to give me.

In Manila, every trip challenges your resolve. Crossing the Philippine capital is akin to being on safari and today my expedition is to Quiapo, a district to which, it seems, all directions lead.

'All photo shops, Sir, are in Quiapo.'

'Ah, you want scissors - go to Quiapo.'

'For watches, Quiapo. Have plenty there.'

From the main tourist haunts, Ermita and Makati, jeepneys to Quiapo cross the Pasig River and drop you off on Quezon Boulevard - if you remember to knock firmly on the roof. The boulevard can't be crossed on foot, so pedestrians must use the Lacson Underpass. With so many shops and pedestrians cramming this subterranean rotunda, the challenge is to not lose your bearings and to come up where you intended. The canny tracker will happily emerge at one of Manila's most wonderful spots.

As you step out onto Miranda Plaza, you will see the big cream walls of Quiapo Church. An icon in the city, it houses the revered Black Nazarene, a life-sized figure of Christ bearing the crucifix. Twice yearly a huge procession of bare-footed men carry the figure through the streets, cheered on by a frenzied crowd of devotees.

The great church seems to have a sobering effect on its surroundings, for in the motor warzone that is Metro Manila, this is a sublime retreat. People come to pray, to stroll, to chat and to peruse at leisure the shops and market stalls.

One of the main attractions of Quiapo is that it is blissfully free (well, almost) of jeepneys, buses and cars. It's not that they are banned - it's just the way things are. The market rules the streets and the people keep the vehicles at bay.

Outside the church are stalls selling medicinal herbs, fragrant flowers, amulets and candles. You can find remedies here for just about every affliction of body and soul. Indeed, I feel better just looking at the stuff and exchanging pleasantries with the vendors.

There isn't much you can't buy at the market. Running west from the plaza, Carriedo Street is overwhelmed with clothing shops and stalls. Narrow adjoining lanes are crammed with bed linen and shoes. There is a special spot for flowers, one for fruit and vegetables, and half a street devoted to photographic shops.

Turn left from Miranda Plaza and you reach Palanca Street, home to the wet market, with meat and fish stalls galore and lots of booths for dining. Under Quezon Bridge handicraft items overflow onto the street; some could almost pass for art.

Manila's famous Chinatown is nearby. Unsure exactly where, I ask a man the way, but he seems to have forgotten how to get there. I walk off in what I think is the right direction; moments later he comes running up and tugs my sleeve. He tells me he remembers: 'Ongpin Street is behind the Santa Cruz Church. You go up there to find it.' And we all but embrace.

Ongpin retains that old-world, oriental feeling. Its apothecaries have weird exotic cures in little bottles: dried seahorses, miniature snakes and other things that seem to be alive. There are lots of curio and jewellery stores, and plenty of offers of tours in a celesa, a hand-crafted horse-drawn coach.

Back in Quiapo I seek respite from the heat. It isn't hard to find because fast-food chains are well represented: Pizza Hut, Dunkin' Donuts, Greenwich Pizza, Shakeys Pizza and Jollibee. But I settle for the fan-cooled Ami's, where the 'VIP lunch' costs US$2 and the 'executive lunch' US$2.90. Ami's is a winner; cool and impeccably clean. Its noodle soup, lomi, is a treat.

By now I have my watch, film and scissors, plus a couple of bargain shirts. I have taken five hours or so to collect them and must head home. So I choose to take the LRT - the Light Rail Transit.

Entering the station I find my favourite local drink, halo halo, a deliciously refreshing mixture of leche flan (jelly), beans, fruit, coconut, milk and ice. If you're lucky, you'll get ice-cream on top. It's the perfect treat with which to cap a perfect day at the city 'fair', but I have had other rewards too.

In the motor-free streets of old Quiapo, you see the people of Manila at their spirited best. You laugh a lot, revel in the heady sights and smells and tune into local ways. It is an absolute pleasure to find, however unlikely the idea, solace for body, mind and soul in one of the most chaotic cities in Southeast Asia.

Getting there: Cathay Pacific flies from Hong Kong to Manila. Quiapo can be reached from most parts of the city by jeepney. The LRT serves Ermita and a number of the more upmarket eastern suburbs.