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Mike Spalding breaks for a smile midway across the channel between Moloka‘i and O‘ahu
Vol. 11, No. 2
April / May 2008

  >>   City on the Edge of Forever
  >>   The Channel Swimmers
  >>   Shaka Buddha

City on the Edge of Forever 

story by Michael Shapiro

The remnants of Typhoon Mita, which had hit the eastern coasts of the Philippines hard the night before, enveloped Manila in a solid, wet wall of gray. It was the second hurricane that week. But life went on as usual: An unbroken line of red taillights crept down Roxas Boulevard toward The Mall of Asia, where Manileños, like their American brothers and sisters, were ferociously shopping for Christmas. Everyone was just as unruffled by the small earthquakes that had rocked the city since my landing two days earlier. A little tremor now and then is certainly no sweat for people living in the geologically restless Philippines. A raised eyebrow and a wry grin was generally the only acknowledgment that the earth had just shivered beneath our feet … again.

And, oh yes, there was also a coup. Maybe you read about it. Long story short: A group of rebels had holed up in the Peninsula Hotel in the upscale Makati City area and refused to leave unless President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo stepped down. She didn’t. You don’t get picked by Forbes magazine as the world’s fourth most powerful woman by being skittish, I suppose. A few tense hours passed while the rebels awaited the popular uprising they hoped would coalesce. It didn’t. The rebels surrendered, and that was that. The whole thing took six hours, start to finish. A citywide curfew was imposed that night, and by the next morning, Manila had returned to the rollicking, barely contained chaos it calls normal.

But back at the largest mall in Asia (called—what else?—The Mall of Asia), people went on shopping, ice-skating, eating, movie-going—far too busy to participate in a popular uprising. If my cab driver hadn’t explained the situation, I wouldn’t have known anything unusual was going down. “Bahala na!” he’d said through his grin, a phrase that well describes the Filipino outlook. It means

“Whatever may come,” and “Leave it to God,” and “S**t happens.” Like banzai!, it also prefaces reckless acts of gumption—a coup, for instance.

Later that evening, confined by the curfew, I make my way to the hotel bar. “Budweiser, Joe?” says my bartender. I tell him my name’s Michael, and he chuckles at my naiveté. Filipinos call random Americans “Joe,” he explains, a holdover from the days when most Americans in the Philippines were servicemen or “GI Joes.” I ask for “something local,” and he pours a San Miguel beer. He’s curious about what I, a Kano (another slang for “American”), think of his hometown.

“It’s been a busy two days,” I say, “I’ve seen earthquakes, typhoons and …”

“And a mutiny!” he says, laughing as he pours himself a drink. “That’s Manila! You never know what’s coming. It’s crazy, but it’s never boring.”

“Bahala na.” I shrug.

“Bahala na!” he replies.