Intramuros 2

I lingered on the bench  to rest my tired feet in front of Manila Cathedral. An ice cream peddler stood patiently alongside me,  beside him was another peddler of  sour mangos. I tried the mango earlier in another area of Manila.  The fruit gets peeled and is sprinkled  with salt or salty shrimp paste to counter the sourness. I noticed these two peddlers (of ice cream and green mango side by side ) are ubiquitous in Manila, one offers something sweet, another sour. They both have the same prices too. 

I felt an urge to eat ice cream. I just noticed how hot this afternoon was. I stood and  turned to the ice cream vendor whose cheapest wafer cone was twenty bucks. I picked an avocado flavor. I finished it off in no time. I ordered another one which gave me a slight sugar high and it seemed to have replenished my energy. To clear the sugar off my mouth, I slugged a bottled ice water from yet another vendor. I resumed my wandering. Afternoon churchgoers walked in and out of the cathedral. The sight of foot traffic made me pause;  I was tempted to stay and watch them,  hesitant to move on. My bench was under a canopy and the winds started to chill in the afternoon as the day approached dusk. I imagined this same place when it was exclusively occupied by the Spanish rulers and native Filipino  elites. If I recall it right, San Sebastian and Sta Isabel, the universities manned by Catholic nuns and priests stood close by. The original Colegio de Santo Tomas, San Juan de Letran and Ateneo de Manila were built somewhere in this vicinity  as well. 

This walled city of Intramuros was the place of the elite, the upper crust of society. Wealth, race and power allowed them  exclusive  residences. It was also the seat of the government and a military camp. I could visualize it now,  the Spanish and elite progeny being carried  by horse-driven carriages to watering places where they could spend time adrift in an imaginary islet that they alone owned. They wandered on the cobbled streets, men wearing their European attires  that were slightly altered to meet the tropical weather. Women in their Spanish inspired moda from Spain, were  huddled  in Plaza Mexico, where the Galleons unloaded their European goods in the Pasig port that may have included  products from the Americas.

The night is approaching so I made my move. I skipped over the decorative metal fence that bordered the cathedral  garden of native greens that resembled the plants I am used to in Florida. Spider lilies and bougainvillea, hibiscus, crotons which the locals call San Francisco magnified the afternoon colors, the sky now taking the orange hue as the sun begins its descent on the Manila Bay. I hastily climbed the steps of the cathedral to dip my fingers on the holy water stoup and made the sign of the cross, an invocation for a blessing as I took a quick glance at the altar and turned quickly back outside. I started hurrying because most of the city closes early on weekdays, and there are a lot more sights included in my personal itinerary. I stood on the side of the road to cross Calle Real and one thing that hasn’t changed in the city as far as streets are concerned, was the sharp alertness required when dealing with these streets.  There are not many traffic lights and  with the abundance of vehicles of different sorts, you must always be on guard. Dealing with roads is based on feeling, a kind of quiet understanding between drivers, passengers, and pedestrians.  You stare at a driver and slightly lunge your feet as a sign you’d cross and he gets the message and slows down. While doing that he blows his horn, calls for more passengers and gives change to the passengers who paid their fares before alighting. It is multitasking  on a grand scale  and this keeps everyone’s attention sharply focused. I crossed and traversed Calle Real and felt a little relief once I stepped up on the curb to continue my walk on the sidewalk opposite the side of the cathedral that is gradually being abandoned by its crowd earlier, all bent to going home for dinner.

Except for me of course.  

I have not seen this place for decades. I was able to drop by it on my old vacations to Manila  but due to my limited days, the time I spent  in it felt lacking. It was a quick pass through and lots of pictures were taken hurriedly. A touch and go visit that was worth nothing. This is my first time to come here with the luxury of time;  I can linger more and let my brain imagine the many events that could have happened throughout  the many centuries it existed. 

I looked around me as I advanced my distance towards the St Augustine Church, and while at it observed the Spanish houses now remodeled, refurbished and repurposed lining the street. Most have been turned into hotels and restaurants that carried the faded facade of ancient time yet inside featured the modern amenities expected by tourists. The spanish houses featured the standard two stories, the first floor has wide doors to permit the entrance for carriages, horses and sacks of harvests. The second floor is built as the main residence, with wide open windows made of capiz shells, and matched by verandas filled with potted plants and vines.  

Stopping in  my tracks,  I keenly observed  these houses they still carried in them the ghosts of their  past.

The carriage, horses and harvest have long been gone, replaced by menus offered by restaurants’ maitre,  patrons and customers guided by polite tuxedoed waiters to their seats; I could see their delight in an ambience of class and luxury – for a heavy price. It is the ambience people pay nowadays when it comes to historical districts everywhere in the world. Local people like me, or locals whose lives got interrupted by moving and working in distant lands, have this  propensity to imagine the local scene  before the interruption. In my case, the interruption happened more than 30 years ago. I am nothing but a ghost giving life to the apparitions of old presence.


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