Monday 19 February 2018

Fun, food and fortune telling - Manila, the people in the street

There are more than 20 million people living in Metro Manila. And despite the often oppressive heat and humidity, for me the city is best enjoyed in it's streets. That said, these streets are not for the feint hearted. They are crowded, noisy and the traffic is a nightmare, but it is the place to see the people and it is the people that make the place. Manilenos are friendly, eager to help and many of them have a story. It only takes a smile and a few words for them to open up and share it.

Madame Carmella, Plaza Miranda
Plaza Miranda is a place of many stories. Adjacent to the Church of the Black Nazarene it represents an interesting meeting of devout Catholicism and belief in older traditions. At service times it is not unusual to see large crowds of devotees standing outside the church, unable to get a place inside and following the mass on large screens. Just a few metres away from the church doors at the heart of the plaza, sits a group of mainly older women, offering to read palms and tarot cards for 100 pesos each before attempting to sell you various potions for your health or a talisman to keep away the evil eye. Most of these women consider themselves Catholics and see no contradiction between that and using their "gift". Some even profess a special devotion to the Black Nazarene, represented by the life-sized, dark skinned Christ figure, carved in the 17th century and housed in the church. Continuing the contradiction,  the stalls outside the church sell religious artefacts as well as herbs allegedly used for causing abortion.

Most of the fortune tellers have been coming to the plaza for many years. Concesa aged 74 says that she first knew she had "the gift" at the age of 7 and has been using it to help people since then. Many of her clients come seeking advice on romantic matters. She told me that despite this she had not been lucky in affairs of the heart and that her deceased husband had been a philanderer. She is still hopeful of finding true love. Madame Carmella sits beside Concesa. She carries a fan branded with the name of the Nazarene, wears silver jewellery and on the day I met her, her striking appearance was exacerbated by her having received ashes for Ash Wednesday . She has a special devotion to the Black Nazarene and claims it was he that directed her into fortune telling. I later noticed the reflection of the surrounding scene in her very large sunglasses. Perhaps she really can see everything.

Concesa, Plaza Miranda
Norma, Quiapo
Street markets are great places for people watching. In Manila the Quiapo and San Antonio districts are home to organised markets as well as hundreds of less formal street vendors. Practically anything can be bought in these places. People come for cheap shoes and clothes, household items, fresh fruit and vegetables, all kinds of rice, herbs and spices, meat and fish. There are also some unexpected specialisms. For example in San Antonio there are butchers that only deal in chicken feet. More commonly there are thousands of street food stalls selling a bewildering choice of dishes for immediate consumption. 

The vendors can be just as interesting as the goods. I met Norma in the Quiapo street market, just around the corner from Concesa and Madame Carmella.  I noticed her talking to a customer and was struck by her kind face and smiling eyes. Retracing my steps a little later she was still there and happy to  chat and to be photographed. Aged 72, she began helping out on the family vegetable stall in 1950 at just four years of age. She is the third oldest of 14 siblings, 11 of whom are still living.

Suman vendor, San Antonio
Cheap rates all the way to London!
Chicken feet stall, San Antonio
Walking in San Antonio I noticed a woman preparing and selling suman in the street. Suman is a simple but delicious sweet made from glutinous rice cooked in coconut. milk, prepared on a grill and wrapped in a banana leaf. Some restaurants offer more sophisticated versions of this but you can't beat the street version. The vendor uses a fan to encourage the flames, giving the operation a slightly theatrical air. I devoured three pieces before asking her if she would mind being photographed. She agreed but thought it amusing and turned her head to one side laughing allowing me to capture a natural, unposed shot. 

San Antonio is not a part of the city that attracts many foreign visitors and I became the object of some curiosity. A tricycle driver asked me where I am from. When I told him I live in London he told me he has a relative in the UK, in Saint Helens. I have never been to Saint Helens but it seems an unusual place to move to from Manila. He was a bit of a comedian and offered to take me back to London in the tricycle saying he could offer me a good price. A few moments later a young woman stepped forward and pointed out her little boy to me. Aged perhaps three, he had very little hair. She laughed, pointed to his head and then mine and said "you are the same". Indeed we were, although I suspect little Erman has more follicle hope than me.

Erman, we have the same hairstyle
Sitting together, Singalong
Basketball in the street, Singalong
Upon seeing the camera street children often come forward and ask to be photographed. Before doing so I always try to spot either a parent or adult relative to secure approval. This is sometimes followed by the adults joining in for a family picture but more often results in the gathering of a rapidly increasing group calling out "just one more picture sir" or "how about me" before striking a series of "street" poses that must have been culled from TV shows or advertising hoardings. I like to show them the pictures which usually results in laughter or comments about who looks the best. Not for these children the luxuries of Nike trainers, I-phones or the latest tablet, instead they must make their own entertainment including traditional street games like the girls I saw doing what I think is called "French skipping". Of course as children grow their interests become a little more sophisticated and in Singalong two teenage girls sat outside their home looking impossibly glamorous whilst waiting for the transport that would take them to their high school prom. The difference in their expressions is striking. The girl on the left looks a little tense tense, perhaps nervous about the prom. The other girl, her cousin lit up the street with her smile, excited, confident and looking forward to the evening. I wonder how the evening went.

Ready for he prom, Singalong
Adults too make their own entertainment. Basketball is played everywhere by both adults and youngsters, whilst in Singalong, another Manila neighbourhood, I noticed a large group of serious looking men playing cards. I later found out that they were playing beside the coffin of a man who had just died and that amongst some communities this is a tradition. A little further down the same street people were taking it in turns to sing karaoke as you might expect in an neighbourhood of this name. In these areas much of life is lived in the street. People call out to each other and acknowledge passers-by. Most Filipinos know at least some English and it is easy to strike up a conversation. 

Jump! San Antonio
Hey mister, one more picture! Singalong

Friends, Singalong
Walk the streets long enough and you will find what we used to call characters. In Quiapo I noticed a man wearing shorts, long red socks with white detailing, black and red trainers and a show stopping red jacket covered with images of Mickey Mouse. The ensemble was accessorised with a black despatch riders bag, black and red baseball cap, bracelets, rings and several laminated ID tags. We walked along the same street for several minutes before I finally managed to see him face-on when he stopped to examine a large bunch of keys. He appeared to be in his late 60's or possibly older. Great style and perhaps it is time that someone discovered some older male models to match the super stylish octogenarian women who have recently achieved notice. 

Fashionista, Quiapo
Walking Manila's streets might be tiring, but it is not an activity I could ever get tired of. People are happy to be photographed if asked and it is relatively easy to take candid pictures too, avoiding the very human tendency of people to want to look their best and begin to pose. Conversely, the advantage of asking permission is that it offers the potential for conversation and the chance to hear their story. Manila is a relatively undiscovered city, tourists preferring to head to the beaches rather than spend time here believing there is not much to see. They are mistaken. 

A few more of my Manila street photo favourites below...

Banana stall, Singalong
What would you like? Street food stall, Quiapo
Smile, street food stall, Quiapo

Will I have to wait very long? Quiapo
Holding on to her sweets, Quiapo
You might also like Jaffa - the people in the Shuk or A Postcard from India 6 - the people in the street

You can see more pictures from the Philippines here

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