A Manila Market Tour

On my last full day in Manila I went on a fantastic food and market tour. Like the slum tour the previous day, this one was offered by Smokey Tours and led by Janet. This time around, though, it was just Janet and me. We met at the same spot, in Binondo, Manila’s fascinating Chinatown, but the tour really began in a neighboring sector called Quiapo. We threaded our way through stalls selling everything from clothing to electronics, not unlike those in Thailand and Malaysia. Janet explained that, unlike in most other Southeast Asian cities, haggling is expected and intense in the Philippines and that, if I wanted to buy anything, I should let her know and she would do the bargaining for me. I was satisfied simply enjoying the atmosphere.

As you may or may not know, the Philippines are an ardently Christian nation, a holdover from Spanish conquest and colonialism. Fully 90% of the population is Christian with the remaining 10% primarily Muslim and a smattering of Buddhists and whatever else. As such, the entire city is dotted with Spanish-style churches and basilicas, with one of the most important is in Quiapo. This is the home of the Black Nazarene. It’s a statue of Christ and it is in fact black, though this is not racial; it was originally Caucasian but turned black following a fire that destroyed an entire shipment, with only the statue surviving—according to legend, anyway. Outside the basilica, women sell colored candles which can be purchased and lit to accompany various prayers, each candle color corresponding to a different wish. On January 9th of every year, millions of Filipinos flock to the basilica to touch the statue, which is said to grant good fortune.

A Manila Market Tour
Manila in Pictures

She led me to food stalls and a particularly interesting challenge surfaced. Janet would approach a vendor, point out a particular snack, then ask to buy an item for me. But…the vendor would refuse to sell it to her. I asked why and she explained that they said the item wasn’t fresh enough or had been in the sun too long. In short, they worried that I would get sick. It’s something I learned early in Thailand: as westerners we are viewed as a particularly fragile lot, an assertion that is perhaps difficult to dispute. I told Janet to let them know I’d been living for two years in Bangkok and ate almost exclusively street food. She brightened visibly and said that this would certainly put the vendors at ease.

Coincidentally or not, our next stop was at a small shop that specialized in Balut. Balut is served throughout Southeast Asia but is believed to have originated in the Philippines and I’ve never seen it elsewhere myself. It is a bird egg—in this case duck—that has been hard boiled but with a still-developing embryo within. They asked me if I wanted to try and I said, sure, of course, and Janet said that we should take a video. I actually ate two as the video didn’t work the first time and Janet insisted I eat another for posterity…and her obvious amusement. The egg looks normal enough. The very top is cracked on the side of the table, forming a small hole into which sea salt and a special vinegar are poured. You then drink the juice and, afterwards, peel the rest of the egg, exposing the embryo curled within its hardened egg white. The taste is surprisingly light, with the vinegar leading the charge, and the embryo itself is soft, not crunchy with beak or bones. It’s honestly not bad at all.

A small crowd had gathered around my table as I ate and Janet informed me that she could count on a single hand the number of guests that had agreed to try balut, so I now belong to a rarefied club. I asked her what the others do. She said they watch the shop owner eat one. In fact, she said, when we first entered, he’d exclaimed in Tagalog, “Oh, I guess I’m eating another balut today?”

The balut shop was in the small Muslim quarter of Manila. It had a single mid-sized mosque with a large but peeling gold dome. It was simply called the Golden Mosque. It seems that Emelda Marcos, wife of the former president and dictator, had once invited Muammar Gaddafi to visit Manila and he’d asked if there was anywhere he would be able to hold his prayers, to which she’d replied, “No problem” and had the mosque built specially for the Libyan strongman. At the last minute Gaddafi canceled his visit but the mosque was put to good use, nonetheless.

A Manila Market Tour

To be honest, the food aspect of the tour was less than enlightening—with the notable exception of the balut, of course—simply because I’d experienced nearly everything fed to me in Thailand or another country. Still, it was fascinating to wander around these areas with a guide to point things out and add explanatory details. The tour ended with a walk through Chinatown, which proved to be one of my favorite parts of the city. It’s busy and energetic but not too crowded and powerlines hang overhead like a canopy, giving the entire neighborhood an oddly intimate feel.

A Manila Market Tour

In a small Chinese restaurant I ate dumplings (Janet doesn’t like them) and we discussed politics and poverty. She was mystified that there would be homeless people in countries like the US and Canada. In the end, we both agreed that too many people shut their eyes to poverty, allowing them to continue believing that poverty is the fault of the poor, that they only consume and produce nothing but children who, in turn, only consume. “They can believe we are lazy,” Janet said with a knowing smile and I was reminded again that she didn’t just lead tours of the slums but was a resident of those slums, as well.

I’m endlessly glad I met Janet. It can be so easy when traveling to avoid and ignore and later forget that these countries where we eat well and play hard and make wonderful memories are staggeringly poor. I take photos and realize that I’ve almost unconsciously framed the photo to ensure that only the palm trees or beaches or mountains or temples are visible, to ensure that the ramshackle buildings and naked children and trash heaps and stray dogs are cropped out, invisible, and easily forgotten. Meeting Janet, following her around for a few hours, was like widening the lens, allowing more to reach me. It’s not much, honestly the very least I can do, but widening that focus does make me appreciate…well, it makes me appreciate. Let’s just leave it at that.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the shocked expression on Janet’s face when I told her there are homeless people in Canada. “They sleep outside?” she said, eyes wide–this tiny woman raising her kids in an actual slum…

The next day I’d be leaving Manila behind, headed for Legazpi.