I cannot capture in images the most consistent and striking sensation that characterizes my every arrival into Manila. Since I was a little girl, when disembarking the plane, I am most welcomed back by the smell. Unending humidity + high temperatures steeped into sulky, ambitious- though undercapitalized layers of plastic and industrial concrete, carefully hand lettered signs and strained air conditioning.
Just outside the airport, beyond the reliably crowded gauntlet of immigration gates, luggage carousels, balikbayan boxes, customs enforcement officers, and alphabetical airport rendez-vous, I am reunited with that strangely underpowered urban night, more crowds, low against crumbling curbs, and rows of tidy, fragile looking kiosks palely lit by blue-white fluorescents. All this, myself included, is caught in the dense embrace of un-ignorable air, thick and mouth-moist, laden with cooking and countless hours of auto exhaust, the tangible but incomprehensible dust of millions.
Leaving Manila, the air clears in sweet instants, a bold miracle breeze from across the bay or a brief opening in the perpetual belching strings of traffic. I realize that my skin is an olfactory organ. I can smell Manila under my clothes, rich across every available surface of my self. It is forceful, pressing, an entire and irrefutable permeation.
And I love it! I love it because it contains so much. Meaning and memory, history, anticipation, and hope. It is a companionable again and again and again. I embrace it back, welcome it to me, glad to be home...