As I stepped out of the train station, hot air blew across my face and the acrid smell of auto fumes from the diesel-guzzling jeepneys entered my protesting lungs. A man pedalling a "padyak" (a bicyle with a sidecar attached to it) loaded with plastic containers and dippers of all sizes rolled by a few inches from my elbow causing me to do a nimble sidestep onto the sidewalk. I walked past makeshift stalls, some no more than square pieces of thin plywood perched atop empty milk cans, that showed off a variety of items for sale - candles, fruit, vegetables, carpentry tools, shoelaces, string wrapped around wooden spools, plastic table cloths with brightly colored flowers printed on them, rock salt, crushed alum, an assortment of batteries and small screws.
Avoiding the puddles filled with dark colored muck, I espied the tower of Quiapo Church, an iconic landmark in the heart of old Manila, where the faithful came to pray for favors and give thanks for blessings granted. Scattered around the church plaza were more stalls, this time displaying merchandise of a more esoteric kind - dried medicinal herbs for almost any kind of ailment, black candles, unpolished nuggets of quartz crystals, moonstone and tiger's eye, "kamanyang" (frankincense), Chinese incense sticks. A woman in a brightly colored sundress, her hair done up in tall coif secured by a hot pink plastic comb, waved to me and asked if I wanted my fortune told. Another woman stared intently at the worn deck of tarot cards that lay in front of her, her client waiting with bated breath for the answer (Has he been unfaithful? Will I find my necklace? Will I get the job?). I find it strange that a gathering of fortune tellers, healers and herbalists have made the church's plaza their camp ground. But, I guess, that is how Filipino spirituality can be best described - a cross between a fierce, sometimes fanatical, adherence to the Roman Catholic faith and a continued belief in pagan practices and ritual.
I wasn't sure where I was going. I was told by a friend to take the Light Railway Transit (or LRT) to Quiapo, get off at the last stop and walk to Villalobos Street. I didn't know squat where that was so I followed my instincts as I walked. I was about to panic, thinking I had lost my way, when I saw the twinkly, sparkling clues that told me I had found it. A little further on and I stood on the street where beads and gemstones are sold.
I hardly slept that week-end. I bent and coiled and strung from morning till the next morning. I must have made at least 10 necklaces and the same number of bracelets. How or where I was going to wear them, I had no idea. But I kept making them. I felt a certain calm when I was coiling and stringing -- the repetitive rythym eased my breathe and I did not notice time passing. I was immersed in a world of my own making, where everything was shiny and new and pretty.
Many pieces from that first batch are gone now, living with people who had purchased them from me two years ago. Some are still with me and I wear them when I feel a little blue, their sparkle giving me the exact lift I need.
I have since made many trips to Villalobos Street. I have gotten used to weaving my way between jeepneys and "padyaks". I have established a nodding acquaintance with the fortune teller with the hot pink comb. I know when new stocks are delivered, and I have mastered the art of haggling. Still, the initial fascination and awe I felt when I first set foot on Villalobos Street still hits me whenever I go there. I still feel like Alice when she first set foot in Wonderland. Curiouser and curiouser.