Manila After Midnight

The longer I’ve stayed in Manila, the more I’ve learned to dislike the daytime. During my first few months here I loved wandering outside in the middle of the day, soaking up the sun’s rays, sucking up the pollution, and celebrating my new life in a place without winter. With no hat or sunscreen, I destroyed innumerable quantities of precious collagen – that non-renewable resource that, once upon a time long ago, gave my skin its creepy-smooth texture. But a decade ago, who was I to care? I was young, indestructible, and drunk on the giddy joy of starting a new life far from home. (I was also quite often drunk on alcohol.)

After a while, I realized that the daytime in Manila is not exactly ideal. The sun takes its brutal toll on pale Scandinavian skin, and the air pollution wears away at a sickly Caucasian immune system. Eventually, one realizes the many advantages of staying inside with one’s dogs until the blazing midday sun makes way for soft, golden light around 5 PM – a wonderful time to take the dogs for a walk or go out to the market to buy some coconut water before the vendors close for the day.

More recently, though, I’ve learned to love the completely different world that is Manila after midnight. I’m not talking about the usual nightlife – I stopped drinking almost two years ago, I hate virtually all people, and I have better luck meeting women online than in bars, anyway. Rather, I’m talking about the night life – the unique life the city takes on well after sunset.

After sunset, the hot, muggy, filthy air  cools down and becomes breathable. In my neighbourhood, a refreshing breeze comes off the nearby Laguna de Bay. My suburban subdivision becomes almost eerily quiet, except for a few young men sitting outside, drinking and chatting. There are also a handful of roving dogs who are quite convinced that they own the streets, and will loudly inform you of their belief – but they’re mostly harmless, as long as you make no sudden movements.

Most of the shops on the nearby highway are closed, too, leaving the odd 7-Eleven or 24-hour  McDonald’s or Jollibee as shining beacons of light and life. In the daytime they are just dreary examples of commercialization, but at night they become cozy gathering places for the souls who venture out into the darkness, whatever their reasons may be.

After midnight, the nightmarish traffic jams make way for quiet streets – and yes, it’s not unusual to get heavy traffic on some roads as late as 10 or 11 PM in Manila, but barring accidents or roadwork, you’re usually pretty safe after midnight. With most civilian motorists in bed, the road is ruled by a sporadic procession of trucks, buses, and abnormally entrepreneurial jeepney drivers. Compared to the constant grind of daytime traffic, it’s refreshingly irregular, and even the dangerous maniacs driving at dangerous speeds on the empty roads do little to diminish the tranquility.

As you travel away from the suburbs and toward Manila’s main business districts, there are more pockets of light and sound in the darkness. There are, of course, the usual bars and night clubs. The low-end karaoke bars announce their presence with the sound of tone-deaf drunks shouting song lyrics into the darkness. Outside high-class nightclubs you’ll find angsty rich kids overdressed for the occasion, trying to get over their first world problems in the third world, chatting with their friends between puffs. Some don’t quite belong there, socioeconomically speaking, but hope they can dress their way into the inner circle. None of this is terribly interesting, though.

The same business areas are also peppered with call centers, offshoring customer service, IT and back office services to Manila’s ambitious young middle class. Some sacrifice their health for a taste of the good life, screwing with their natural body clocks to answer tech support calls on Eastern Standard Time. You’ll see them catching smoke breaks and eating American fast food while on a break from taking calls from irate American customers. Perhaps they’ll visit a nearby 24-hour bar after work and relieve the stress of their jobs by getting good and drunk at 6 AM. If they weren’t lucky enough to be born rich or to attend one of the three or four best universities in the country, it probably seems to be their easiest path to the good life. And really, can you blame them?

Step away from any of these glowing, buzzing hubs of nighttime activity and you’ll be back in the world of street lights, 7-Elevens, and bored-looking, overarmed security guards.

But however interesting drunken debauchery, the wheels of global commerce, or 24-hour convenience stores may be, none of them fascinate me as much as the all-night sock vendor.

Alabang Public Market is, in addition to being a great place to buy beans, also a great place to go when you absolutely, positively need to get a colander at 2 AM. The market technically never closes, although you may find it looking a bit forlorn at certain times of day – say, around 8 PM, when the daytime vendors have closed and the wholesalers haven’t yet started gearing up for the morning rush. But if you come right after midnight, you’ll be surprised to find that the market is wide awake. Although the wholesaler rush is several hours away, and the freshest fish won’t be available until at least 3 o’clock, 1 AM is a perfect time to go wandering inside and outside the brightly-lit market, getting first pick of the latest okra shipment. Many of the vendors sit amidst the eerie silence, unnervingly ready for customers who have not yet arrived. Some of them have dozed off while waiting for the morning rush, leaving you to decide whether their bell peppers look tasty enough to justify disturbing their slumber. More squeamish souls might be disturbed by the meat vendors who march through the market with dead pigs slung over their shoulders and proceed to hack them apart for the coming day’s customers, but well, that is where your meat comes from. (Click here to see a picture of the friendly butcher hacking up some kalabaw bones that I made into soup for my dogs – I’ve avoided embedding it for all the wimps out there who prefer to hide from reality. You’re welcome, wimps!)

In addition to clearly not showing vegetables, this photo was aclso taken a bit later, after 3 AM when the market starts getting busy. That said, I’m not rushing back to the market at 1 AM just so I can finish this post – My fridge is still overflowing with vegetables after my last trip!

After stocking up on all those infernally healthy vegetables, I like to reward myself by abusing my body the best way a non-drinker can – with 3 AM breakfast at Jollibee. The 24 hour branch across from Alabang Public Market seems to start selling breakfast at the stroke of midnight or close to it, unlike the shameless buzzkills at other locations who would force you to wait until 4 or even 5 o’clock. At an hour when literally nobody else in the surprisingly full restaurant would think of having breakfast, I am chowing down on Spicy Breakfast Chickenjoy – a large piece, please – with a cup of the Bee’s surprisingly rich and thick hot chocolate. I leave the restaurant with my heaving bags of bok choy, hoping that I can absorb some of their vitamins by osmosis and cancel out at least a little bit of the chicken grease.

I ride home from the market around 3:30 AM in a half-filled jeep. As you might imagine, some of the passengers are looking pretty bleary-eyed at this hour. But more surprisingly, a lot of them are, like me, wide awake. The well-to-do folk who pass us in their tinted SUVs probably feel a mix of scorn and pity for us lowly souls, forced to take “dangerous” public transit at this ungodly hour. But although I know some of my neighbours are going home at 3:30 AM after working themselves to the bone for too little pay, I like to imagine that many others are, like me, entirely at home in the strange alternate world of Manila after midnight. It might be a popular time to placate irate AT&T customers or find a drunken stranger to help you temporarily screw away your existential angst, but it’s also the ideal hour to experience Manila as a place of clean, cool air, spacious sidewalks and empty streets. And buy some leeks, too.

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