Buffet 101 and the Modern-Day Vomitorium

Tonight I had an experience that is quite rare for me: I ate at a high-end buffet. Given my notorious stinginess and my staunch “I don’t eat out in Manila unless it’s canteens, pizza or fast food” policy (which will get its own post, of course!), it takes some truly unusual circumstances to drag me out to the high-end smorgasborgs which have sprouted up throughout the Metro.

As it happens, this high-end buffet served as a most unusual location for a first date with a local woman off an Internet dating site. (What can I say? I’m trying to get out more.) For some reason, she decided that such an ostentatious choice would be ideal for the first meetup between two total strangers; with my usual suaveness, I informed her that I would only eat at such a ritzy establishment if it were birthday or if someone were treating me. Although I expected her to simply lose interest and find another dining companion who wasn’t a stingy jerk (or who was currently celebrating his birthday), she surprised me by insisting that she’d pay for both of us. After a few incredulous rounds of “Do you really want to pay for me?” and several affirmative responses, I finally accepted. I was pretty baffled, but since it’s not every day that strangers offer me expensive meals, it was hard to say no. So, after meeting up with her in Makati and wandering around the malls for a few hours, abusing the free karaoke machine demos in music stores and searching for a pepper mill – more of the makings of a great first date – we ended up at Buffet 101, which touts itself as the longest buffet line in the Philippines. (Incidentally, I did manage to find an inexpensive pepper mill, and I expect my nose to be very happy during the coming weeks and months.)

Buffet 101 is one of several highish-end buffets that can now be found in Manila and other major cities, along with such competitors as Dad’s, Yaki Mix and Vikings. A meal at one of these restaurants could run you between 500 and 1200 pesos ($11 to $25 US), which sounds like a pretty wide price range, but all are equally unaffordable for your average indigent rice farmer or sidewalk cigarette-and-mint vendor. These massive food-based amusement parks have popped up all over Manila, Cebu and Davao as the aspirational middle class continue to seek out new ways to celebrate the sweet life. Or, to put it another way, they provide a helpful answer to the nagging question: “Now that I have all this money, what can I spend it on so as to avoid giving it to the poor?” Read More

I Will Name All of My Sons and Daughters “Skyway”

In Metro Manila, there are two inevitabilities: not death and taxes, as taxes are all too frequently evaded here, but death and traffic. However, that is not to say that the soul-crushing weight of traffic is evenly distributed throughout the Metro: the road network that links together the 17 cities and municipalities of Metro Manila ranges from potholed one-way side roads plied by bicycle rickshaws to monstrous twelve-lane expressways choked with trucks, buses and shiny new SUVs, and traffic conditions can vary wildly from road to road, hour to hour, and day to day. Some general traffic trends can be discerned, as when millions of commuters travel each morning from their homes in the suburbs (mostly in the north) to the business districts of the centre, then pour back into their suburban enclaves in the evenings. Each week also brings, with grim predictability, the great and terrible Friday night exodus from the Metro, an apocalyptic spectacle wherein millions of Monday-to-Friday Manileños leave their offices and boarding houses to slowly honk their way back to the relative peace and quiet of their home provinces. But amidst all of these recurring patterns, one of the most remarkable features of Manila traffic is its sheer unpredictability. Of course, many of Manila’s impromptu traffic jams are caused by obvious factors like rain, road accidents, and naked, mentally ill men walking down the middle of busy freeways. On the other hand, other traffic flare-ups seem almost inexplicable, like the impassible midnight traffic jams I’ve found myself in at Pasay Rotonda, or total gridlock in a sleepy residential area of New Manila on a Saturday afternoon.

Given the massive socioeconomic disparities that are pervasive in Manila, it’s no surprise that one’s experience of Manila traffic can vary wildly depending on one’s level of privilege. It seems a bit silly that many people would apply the word “commuting” to both an underpaid service worker inhaling hot, toxic air while trapped inside a crowded jeepney for two interminable hours of stop-and-go honking, and to an executive being shuttled to their office by their driver inside an air-conditioned SUV equipped with pitch-black tinted windows to protect them from the unworthy eyes of the masses while they catch up on business e-mails and watch funny YouTube videos on their iPad. But still, although money may buy comfort, it cannot buy you freedom from the time-sucking daily reality of Manila traffic. The three MRT and LRT lines offer commuters a chance to soar above the gridlock, but at the price of sacrificing any basic notion of personal space, and with constant risk of getting groped or pickpocketed. The only people who can really beat the system are the lucky few with access to private helicopters – and even then, they’re still constrained by only being able to travel to locations that are equipped with helipads, which feels like an indignity all its own. Read More

Things I’m Grateful For Today

After a two-week hiatus from blogging, it seems fitting to dip my toes back into the compositional world by writing something even more frivolous and unstructured than usual. And although my blog posts have been all roses and sunshine compared to the misanthropic bile I used to pump out during my angsty teen years (and let us never speak of it again), it still might be time to take a “positivity break” from all the death and guilt and pangolin poaching. Here goes!

First of all, I’m grateful that the last two typhoons that whipped by the Philippines brought thoroughly underwhelming amounts of rain and wind to Metro Manila. Although there were times that the nonstop cloud cover and slow, steady rain became oppressive in their sheer unceasingness, it was also a great time to be at home in my underwear, listening to the rain pour outside while cuddling with my extremely hydrophobic dogs. And now that the sun has come back, I can think of it as a familiar friend instead of just a cruel tyrant zapping me with UV rays against which my pasty skin is ill-equipped to defend itself. (If one of the subsequent typhoons during the current rainy season turns Metro Manila into a giant lake, I’m going to regret writing this.)

I’m grateful for lazy, sunny Sundays like this one – days when I can’t hear much outside my house except for the blowing of the wind and the constant chirping of birds, even as I potentially annoy my neighbours by blasting Scarlatti keyboard sonatas on my computer speakers. (Sorry – I hope it’s not too loud! It can’t be nearly as bad as the tone-deaf karaoke that blasts out from the house a few doors down on some weekends, anyway…) Read More