The City Wakes Up

The City Wakes Up

Jun 20, 2024Vhea Paras

I find myself in the embrace of Manila's dawn, memories flooding back like a torrential downpour, washing over me with the same comforting familiarity as raindrops falling on a tin roof. It's 4 a.m., Manila time, and jetlag has gifted me this unwanted yet strangely beautiful awakening. No blaring alarm, no jolt—just the slow, reassuring rhythm of the city waking up.

The whispers of waking

It's barely dawn, and the sky is still bruised with the fading remnants of the previous night, but even as I revel in nostalgia, the city around me is stirring. It's a lullaby in reverse, a gentle nudge that says, "Time to rise, sleepyhead, the city's alive!”

The rhythmic swishing sound of the walis tingting—the national waker-upper—breaks the silence. It's a sound as familiar as my heartbeat that signals the start of a new day, as diligent homemakers sweep away the remaining traces of yesterday. Soon, it's joined by the chorus of roosters, their crowing a primal alarm for a new beginning. 

The rain deepens, becoming a steady drumbeat against the backdrop of the city's early stirrings. Under the pre-dawn darkness, a different kind of light flickers to life—the warm glow emanating from sari-sari stores preparing for the day's first customers. 

Then comes the pot-pots. The faint clinking of a bicycle bell announces the arrival of the bread vendor, his basket overflowing with golden-brown pandesal—the quintessential Filipino breakfast bun. The aroma and warmth of the bread waft through the cool morning air tugging at my stomach and the memories attached to it. I recall childhood mornings, running out with crumpled bills to grab some steaming pandesal, its soft crust giving way to a fluffy interior, perfect for dipping in hot chocolate or coffee.

Soon, the unmistakable hum of tricycles fill the air; their sputtering engines are the soundtrack to countless commutes. This early morning noise, once a source of annoyance, now feels oddly comforting.

The aroma of a city coming alive

As the morning slowly unfolds, the most delicious part of the awakening commences. The streets, still damp from the rain, begin to fill with movement, and the aroma of breakfast fills the air. The sharp tang of garlic frying mingles with the rich, smoky fragrance of longganisa—a local sausage that promises a spicy kick to the day. The scent of sweet champorado wafts through—a heady and irresistible invitation to a satisfying breakfast.

Meanwhile at Aling Nena's carinderia down the street, regulars greet each other with sleepy smiles and share stories over steaming cups of kapeng barako—the local strong coffee. Fortunately, this feast for the senses isn't just for the lucky few: it's a citywide experience, thanks to the tireless efforts of eatery vendors across regions. 

Even in the most secluded communities, the rhythmic "tahooo!" echoes through the streets—a familiar silhouette in the fading darkness accompanied by the clinking sound of his metal wares. Sleep-tousled figures emerge from their homes, drawn by the promise of warm and soft silken curds waiting to be bathed in sweet syrup and topped with crushed sago pearls. A childhood memory I vividly remember was eagerly awaiting at our gate, clutching a personal mug ready to be filled with the warm, comforting taste of freshly made taho. It's a simple yet deeply satisfying ritual, a shared experience that binds the city together.

We rarely see the world of earlier risers but their echoing calls remind everyone that breakfast—and a new day—is here.

My mouth watered; the memory of countless mornings spent savoring these dishes flooding back. This isn't just a breakfast menu; it's a lovely guide to Manila mornings.

As the day progresses, the chaos of the city awakens fully. Cars honk, vendors hawk their wares, and conversations rise and fall like waves. But for a stolen moment, before the sun truly claims the sky, there's a quiet understanding between the early risers.

Behind the scenes: The early risers

These sights, sounds, and smells are just a glimpse into the hidden world of early risers. We rarely see the bakers who rise before dawn to ensure warm bread is within the city's hungry grasp, the cooks and food purveyors preparing ingredients by the dim glow of a single bulb, or the taho vendors painstakingly preparing silken tofu and arnibal under the pre-dawn sky. But their echoing calls remind everyone that breakfast—and a new day—is here.

These are the city's unsung heroes who rise before the sun paints the sky, the silent contributors to the well-being of millions. Their days are a mirror image of ours, except flipped on their heads. Their mornings begin when ours end, their sleep snatched in stolen hours between deliveries and restocking. They are the city's responders against sleep and hunger. Their work sets the tone for the day ahead, offering sustenance and comfort to the waking city dwellers.

Amidst the chaos of the morning rush, there lies a sense of comfort in the familiar rituals of urban life—to savor the taste of hot pandesal, to listen to the sound of rain on the roof, to bask in the warmth of community.

As I pause to savor the sights, sounds, and flavors of Manila's new morning, I thank them, not just for the pandesal and taho, but for the invisible thread they weave, a thread that binds us all together in the warm embrace of a new day.

Cover illustration by Ira Fernandez. In-article photo by MICHEL. 

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