“The last person who lived here was a foreigner,” the building manager tells us as we step into the darkened apartment. Margie and I are looking for a furnished condo. This place looks not merely furnished but abandoned mysteriously in Bermuda Triangle fashion. Their bowls of oatmeal were still steaming, but no one was aboard the ship! Boxes of macaroni and cheese, cans of Pringles, and other healthy foodstuffs, as well as half-empty bottles of wine and an almost full bottle of scotch, line the shelves in the kitchen. I don’t want to know the story here.
The condo has three floors, but cramped ones. The first floor has a small sala (living room) and a kitchen/dining area, the second floor has a bed and a bathroom, and the third floor has a laundry room. The floors are all connected by the kind of twisty metal staircase you might find in a submarine. I would kill myself if I lived here—or drink myself to death. I have the urge to ask if the foreigner who lived here did just that, but I doubt the manager would tell me if he had.
If this were up to Margie alone, she’d have us live with her two sisters in the tiny two-bedroom apartment on Roces Avenue where we lived in 2002/2003, the last time I had a sabbatical. I have some good memories of the Roces Avenue apartment—we lived there when our daughter Shoshie was born. And I have some bad memories. I almost died there of dengue fever, which I’d contracted on a visit to Thailand. I adore my sisters-in-law, but really the apartment is too cramped and hot—only one bedroom has air conditioning—and there’s no hot water. On the plus side, it’s really cheap, but in the past five years I’ve softened. I just don’t think I could live anymore without a hot shower. Really. I would die and the coroner’s report would read: “Cold-shower-related death.” I have an ally in Shoshie, who hates cold showers, too. Plus, it’s the rainy season, and a hot, cramped apartment in the rainy season in the Philippines that has jeepneys (the Philippines’ peculiar brand of public transport, a kind of elongated jeeplike bus) roaring by right outside, their fumes seeping through the windows, doesn’t make for the best writing retreat or the best place to bring up little kids. I don’t need anything fancy, but an apartment without fumes would be preferable.
Still, Margie convinces me that it would be a good idea to find a place near Roces, if possible—most Filipinos I know have tight-knit families and Margie’s is no exception. We’re not looking in Manila proper but in Quezon City. Just as New York City contains its boroughs, Metro Manila contains several cities. Quezon City is by far the largest and most prosperous of them. We could be living in a spacious high-rise owned by the daughter of the mayor of Quezon City, but Margie nixed that several months ago when my friend, the Filipino prose writer and editor Sarge Lacuesta, sent me photos of the apartment via e-mail. The mayor’s daughter, Joy Belmonte, is a good friend of his and he stayed in the apartment for several months. The view, he said, was spectacular, but that was part of the problem for Margie. The condo is on the 24th floor of a building and Margie is afraid of being in tall buildings, a fear that dates back to 1991, when the building she was in nearly toppled in the big earthquake that killed hundreds in the Philippines that year.
After we’ve spent a week futilely combing newspapers and the streets, Margie reluctantly agrees to cast a wider net. One day, we take a taxi to the city of Makati, Metro Manila’s main financial district. Walking along a street of luxury high-rises in the neighborhood known as Salcedo Village, we decide to simply pop into a few of the buildings and ask if there are any condos for rent.
The bored clerk at the first place we stop tells us that he has one for rent and finds someone to cover for him at the front desk while he shows us the apartment. This one is plenty big, with a large living room, a couple of enormous bedrooms, hardwood floors, and high ceilings. It’s decorated the way my wealthy Filipino grandmother (if I had one) would deck out her apartment: with plastic-covered sofas and substantial dark furniture made of Nara wood. I’m in a panic. Even this looks good to me. How much? I inquire. The rent, he tells me, is 60,000 pesos, or about $1,400. I can manage that, I think, but then he informs us we’ll need to put up a year’s rent in advance plus a deposit of two months’ rent. I do a few quick calculations. That’s, let’s see, $16,800 plus $2,800 for a grand total of $19,600—up front.
“Is that all?” I ask, as though I normally carry that much in pocket change.
“Plus association dues.”
In America, I might think he simply didn’t want to rent to me. But here cash on the barrelhead is the norm, and even though it’s a poor country there seem to be enough people who can plunk down cash for a car or a condo that the request isn’t particularly outrageous. In the status-conscious Philippines, it’s a litmus test of sorts. The right sort of foreigner—a businessman, for instance—would pony up without hesitation if he dreamed of living in Grand Grandma Towers.
A few buildings down the street, we find a talkative and curious manager. “Where are you from?” she asks me.
“Ah, that’s why you marry a negra,” she says, puckering her lips in Margie’s direction. Margie isn’t taken aback, though I am. She grew up with this attitude, and, really, the manager doesn’t mean to be offensive. To her, she’s just stating the obvious. Margie is darker than many Filipinos—even Margie’s mother uses skin-lightening lotion from China (which, according to the label, provides a nonsensical but delightful added benefit: it “dispels horniness”) and is disturbed that Margie isn’t disturbed by her own dark skin.
The manager shows us the deal of the century. Five bedrooms, six baths, lap pool, sauna, helipad, bowling alley, free maid service, and a nightly stage show. Twenty-five dollars a month, first month free. No deposit. Actually, I don’t remember a thing she said about the apartment after the moment she said “negra.”
Timidly, I broach the subject of the high-rise my friend Sarge told me about—"Should I see if that apartment is still available?" I ask Margie.
To my surprise, she says yes. And, to my greater surprise, it is still available. Sarge picks us up one day soon thereafter and delivers us to the condo, which is located in the middle of Metro Manila. The apartment itself is as spacious and luxurious as anything I’ve seen to date. Margie and I traipse through the condo’s two bedrooms, large living room, dining room, and contemporary kitchen as though through a field of wildflowers. All our normal reservations fall away. Margie’s fear of heights has vanished and we smile at one another like idiots. Have we been drugged?
The view alone could rate an essay: directly across from the apartment sits the main headquarters of Meralco, the electric company, its rooftop emblazoned with the word PEACE. Directly below us, Corinthian Gardens, a gated community of mansions with enormous pools and tiled roofs, sits inviolate and seemingly uninhabited while jeepneys, cars, and taxis vie for road space outside its walls. To our right, a darkened shell of a building abandoned before completion, maybe 18 stories high, slowly crumbles, its rooftop pool filled with dirty water and weeds.
This isn’t exactly what either of us had in mind. We had really hoped for a fully furnished place, and this condo only has beds, appliances, and a dining table. Buyers are liars, realtors say, and, in our case, so are renters. I want this to be my home for the next 11 months: this condo, in a neighborhood of call centers and malls (three within walking distance: Robinson’s Galleria, the posh Podium, and SM Megamall), in a building congressmen stash their mistresses in.
In America, I might not want to live next door to a giant five-story mall, but my criteria have changed in Manila. This city is not the easiest to navigate, and I won’t have to take a taxi anymore if I want to go to a drugstore or the supermarket. I’ll simply walk outside and cross from the car park to one of the malls.
The place even has a maid’s room. No jeepney fumes will reach up here. I really have gone soft, haven’t I?
“It’s great, isn’t it?” I say to Margie before setting off to examine the condo’s three bathrooms to test the hot water.