I’ve never high-fived as many kids as I did that evening in Manila. They surrounded me at the edge of the basketball court, climbing atop parked motorcycle taxis to stand eye-to-eye with this six-foot foreigner.
‘What’s your name?’
Anthony. What’s yours?
‘My friend’s name is a fart! Do you have a girlfriend?’
I do. Do you? I pointed at the tiniest and scrawniest of the bunch. I bet you do, huh? I winked at him.
‘How tall are you? Can you dunk?’
I looked at the older kids playing ball. It was dusk; I was finished. I’d caught a red-eye over from Taipei, sleeping one hour on a stainless-steel chair in Ninoy Aquino Airport. I’d walked the city from 8am, sizzling like that deep-fried banana from Paco Market as the temperature soared and the air crisped. I felt light-headed.
Sorry guys. No dunking today.
Where the hell was I? ‘BRGY.378 ZONE 38 District Manila’ said the colourful writing on the backboard.
I’d hopped out of a jeepney – the Philippines’ ubiquitous mode of cheap public transport, re-purposed trucks with crowded seating and kitsch paint jobs – on the side of A Bonifacio Ave, seeking entry to the Chinese Cemetery. I hadn’t planned on venturing this far north in the city, but a conversation in Rizal Park had turned into lunch at a family home in the sepia-tinged neighbourhood of Dagat-Dagatan with a 70-year-old croupier, who’d lured me into a scheme to swindle money from the casino where he worked. I’d indulged him and ventured down the rabbit hole, until it turned out the rabbit hole contained a fake Malaysian businessman in a pinstripe suit brandishing $40 000 in crisp $100 bills, and I’d legged it quickly.
After wandering the streets of the Chinese Cemetery, almost pausing to nap on a pavement in that vast neighbourhood of the dead, I was winding my way south toward Ermita along narrow alleyways between colourful double-storey houses, where tailless cats scurried and men played cards on overturned crates. Every few blocks the street opened into a public square-cum-basketball court like this, a cat’s cradle of power lines dangling overhead.
‘Dunk! Dunk!’ they cried. It seemed rude not to try. Two bounces, three strides and a mighty leap later, I reached nowhere near the rim and the ball bounced harmlessly off the backboard. A cheer went up around the crowd. I tried twice more before departing, humbly, to undeserved applause. As I marched off into darkness, the kids mobbed me for high-fives. The tiny, scrawny one circled around me all the way down the street, his little hand reaching up each time, beaming a gap-toothed grin at me.
I wonder how they’d have reacted if I’d actually dunked the damn ball.