After a bumpy pedicab ride from Taft Avenue through Pablo Ocampo, we alight across a lifeless CCP Complex. Greeted by half empty parking lots and sprouts of greenery, the scent of petrol and saltwater waft the path to an even emptier Harbor Square. Peaceful folks adorn the concrete coast, going about their day by the historical bay.
Catch of the day
Some fishermen by the edge of waist-high cement barriers simultaneously whip nearly invisible strings into the air and out onto the water. Some waiting in silence, others exchanging stories and taunts as the minutes pass. It’s 8 in the morning and the horizon they’ve all set their sights towards is a pastel blue.
A silver gloss from what appears to be a tilapia is just reeled into the view and straight into a green plastic balde. The man then tinkers a beige speck onto his hook and casts his rod twice for another. “Meron nagtitinda dito ng bulateng dagat,” remarks Mang Ben about the curious button-sized bait they use.
Mang Ben who admits “may edad na din ako kaya naglilibang lang,” comes here from Pasay almost every day. Pointing to the curvature of rocks that break the grayish blue of the water, “[sa] mga batuhan doon.” He recalls that rocky area used to be the best place to fish up until yacht owners some few years ago became suspicious of things suddenly going missing. People have since been forbidden to stray there.
It’s a bit of a swim from the end of the tiny boulders to where the crisp white boats are docked. He continues to reminisce fondly to when the water was cleaner, “Nakahuli ako ng malaki!” Mang Ben gestures gloriously, hands half a meter apart, laughing at how his catch lost its scales by the time he got home as onlookers that day fiddled with the prize in excitement.
“Nakahuli [na] kami ng tatlo, kayo dalawa palang,” teases some. Lolo Dendo who had just driven his granddaughter to DLSU, is yet another hobbyist passing time before he’s called for pickup duty. He remembers when the water was really murky over the last 30 years and fish started to die. Without the government’s concrete action, he notes that the water nevertheless manages to clean itself every now and then as nature sparingly does.
“Today, malinis yung tubig,” he observes, crediting this to the scheduled tide that flushes out dirt, and therefore pulls in cleaner currents. This drives live fish in, fish that perhaps is good enough to eat. “Para sa mga ‘wasalak’, walang sawa sa alak,” he even jokes. Not for Lolo Dendo though, who gives his catch to his kapitbahay along Vito Cruz that has nothing to eat. But for others, this is their livelihood and direct source of food.
These are just some of the lively individuals surrounding the bay. They comprise the harbor’s unceasing community of fishermen, either for leisure or survival. Some are still trying to live off the land or, in this case, the water, in spite of the flux of its safety and cleanliness which has been controversial for numerous years. Manila Bay’s shy waves up close is dark yet a dull green and blue amalgamation of its own, still pressing for a solution.
For old time’s sake
Old and young visit the bay. Outstretched arms are juggling phones for selfies against the light. The bay is a beauty to tourists and locals alike. Middle-aged, neon sporting joggers stretch facing the cut-off silhouettes of high rise hotels from the distance. People are finishing breakfast at the Pancake House and taking out Starbucks from the only two stores open this early at Harbor Square. Old friends, hand-in-hand with a cane on the other, are seeing it for the first time together. One is a retired philosophy professor from De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde, his neighbor is a retired balikbayan from the US. After a long commute from Caloocan, they decided this morning might be a good time for a walk.
Tenth graders in uniform gather briefly by the pier after having just visited a nearby museum for a fieldtrip. A college barkada in one corner is enjoying their free cut, comfortably perched atop the edge of the concrete. “May nakita kaming ahas!” They enthusiastically name what might have been an eel, Bes. This is also their first time here; after jogging the perimeter, the group of five takes in the unsuspecting breeze.
Following the asphalt pavement off Harbor Bay leads us across a wider boulevard that stretches far beyond sight. With coconut trees dotting its lines and a flurry of fishing boats parked by the 90-year-old Manila Yacht Club, the baywalk is a standstill straight off a sepia postcard from Manila’s golden years. Regardless of the weekday traffic, the location is a reminder of the country’s commonwealth past and the influence of post-war America. It’s during this time of day when the unrelenting heat sends people scurrying for cover and the walkway becomes devoid of any movement, providing a peaceful respite amidst the hectic capital.
Come late afternoon, the calming sound of waves crashing against rocks is replaced by frenzied shrieks, raucus laughter, and tsinelas slapping down on the sidewalk. Little children run frantically through the stretch as their parents attempt to calm them down, while groups of friends and a handful of lovers deck out on the breakwater. They’re all waiting for the sun to come down while snacking on ice cream and taho from the bevy of vendors that stroll through the boulevard.
The bay suddenly teems to life and the beach is painted in a dazzling orange. A few meters from the walkway and into the shore lies a docked bangka painted a bright blue and red, swaying against the boulders. Perched on the boat’s bench is a man staring out at the renowned sunset as it disappears deeper into the black ocean. This is Manuel and he’s hand painted the bangkas that come and go along the shoreline for 41 years now.
Having grown up in the nearby district of Malate, Manuel spent much of his childhood days in Manila Bay interacting with fisher folk and boatmen whom he has since considered family. Being one of the few painters around the vicinity, his services are often sought out, yet contrary to what one might expect, Manuel charges close to nothing.
“I charge them according to what budget they have. I don’t care If I don’t profit from it,” he explains. “Our camaraderie is based on that, even if it is a small favor. We’re a family here. If I can help a lending hand somehow then that’s the right thing to do.”
A piece of home
Jr and Saki, along with their 13 month old baby, Marco Polo, are playing on top of a flattened cardboard box. “Dito kami napadpad nung naghirap na kami,” explains Jr who was a seaman from Bohol. They, like many other homeless, found shelter along the strip of the bay when they struggled financially four years ago. Today Jr works odd jobs and dispatches in the nearby restaurants, while Saki raises baby Marco who appears to have a cold.
The couple had witnessed a number of instances of public indecency and hold-ups past midnight especially in the unlit bushy parts of the landmarks. Although this is neither a safe nor ideal living situation, the family is contented and comfortable with little to nothing other than their day-to-day meals. “Wala kaming [ibang] mapupuntahan,” Jr adds.
Soon Manuel, Jr, and the others whose lives are built around the bay, fear they’ll have but stories to pass down to younger generations. Surveying the area, Manuel points to the parts that the government plans to develop.
“It saddens me because my grandchildren may not be able to see Manila Bay for what it is right now or what it used to be.” He continues., “We will only be able to tell them about the history of the place.”
Last February, Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada approved yet another multibillion peso reclamation project for Manila Bay, which will serve as the new tourism and commercial hub of the city, aside from the Mall of Asia. While the project may be good news for businesses and the entertainment industry, the thousands of fisher folk and squatters won’t just lose their source of income, but a piece of home as well. We, although quite detached from this body of water, will unknowingly lose a rich facet of the city’s culture and history.
Despite the controversy and heat that surround the issue, the folk of Manila Bay refuse to go down without a fight. “This is our home, and we will not be treated like outsiders,” Manuel says fearlessly.