The color drained from Steve's face, his eyebrows raised and snapped together in a flash of fear. This was the moment I realized achondroplasiaphobia was very real, even though I couldn't pronounce it.
It's not every day you discover one of your friends has agenuine, uncontrollable, panic-inducing, heart-thumping fear of dwarfs.
We were sitting together on a sunny terrace overlooking Manila, discussing what to do with our weekend respitefrom the bitter cold in China,when I first mentioned The Hobbit House.
"Under his care, hundreds of dwarfs have adopted newcultural identities," I intoned, reading a review of the infamous bar thatwas started by a former US Peace Corps worker themed on J.R.R. Tolkien'sfantasy novels.
"They're no longer shunned or even feared as supposedevil spirits, but have become popular characters called hobbits - merry figureswho serve drinks, crack ribald jokes and even entertain onstage."
But this was no joking matter. Steve was not amused anddemanded we not laugh as he revealed the secret phobia he had held sincechildhood.
There would be no dwarfs tonight. No small humor. Not even alittle attempt at some friendly banter as I bit the inside of my lip, keepingmy promise not to laugh while thinking about a myriad incongruous childish gagsI could make.
We had arrived in the capital of the Philippines afew hours earlier. Direct flights from Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Xiamen in four hours or less for around 2,000 yuan ($316)make a weekend trip to Manila a quick easywinter getaway for those wanting an escape from China's biting cold.
A mass of more than 600 square kilometers is home to nearly10 million people who live in the 14 cities and three municipalities that makeup what is officially known as Metro Manila.
At first glance Manilais an overbearing, dirty, vociferous megalopolis where the drive from theairport to the hotel can take longer than the flight. The traffic is, quitesimply, abominable, as you nudge an inch a minute past streets of nondescript concrete buildings, shopping malls and giant billboards of Cristiano Ronaldoand Paris Hilton. Did I mention overbearing, dirty and vociferous?
There is no real center to Manila, where the locus is really a matter ofopinion, necessity and desire. Each area is a city within its own right.
Makatiis the central business district, which is home to most of the high-end hotelsand shopping malls.
Roxas Boulevardand Manila Bay are also tourist magnets, with amixture of bars, clubs, hotels and even more shopping malls surrounded by theslums and shantytowns that connect these cities, and house the millions whohead to the capital chasing a dream to strike it rich.
For tourists and business people heading to Manila to splurge their riches, the singlemost important decision is where to stay. Comfort, safety and security shouldmatter as much as location in a city riddled with crime and where it is notunusual to have traffic jams even at 4 inthe morning.
The Edsa Shangri-La in MandaluyongCity, one of Manila's flourishing commercial areas, ticksall four boxes for any leisure or business traveler seeking an urban oasiscocooned from the chaos.
Nestled in lush greenery and basking in natural light, the632-room hotel has four international restaurants, a deli-style caf, a bakery,two lounge bars, a business center and even its own medical center.
After a quick arrival cocktail, we head to dinner at Paparazzi, a well-established Italian restaurant famous for its authenticdishes and chef who was taught to cook by his restaurant family back in Italy.
The cured beef carpaccio with salsa verde, green apple andsnow pea sprout salad is simply divine and washed down very nicely with a finepinot grigio.
My main dish, roasted sea bass with capers, roasted cherrytomatoes, black olives in a white-wine broth, left no room for dessert. Butafter a brief break, the tiramisu looked too tempting to turn down.
Satiated, loosed by the pinot and with a desire to see thisvibrant city at night, we head out into evening with the solemn promise toSteve there will be no little people. He sighed.
It soon became clear there are three types of entertainmentin Manila:ladies, girls and lady boys. The city's predilection for sex tourism wassomething that had not escaped our attention in planning this trip and it wascertainly not on our itinerary, but try telling our cab driver who started toresemble Cheech Marin's club welcome in the movie From Dusk Till Dawn.
I attempt to tell him our partners back home would not beimpressed and we were just looking for a quiet beer and maybe some live music.He bursts out laughing, raises his thumb as he turns his head to smile at meand flicks on his radio, "Here, listen, live music. Now you go havegirl?"
It's worth pointing out there are lots of good bars andnightclubs in areas such as Malate and Makati, but as we learned, most taxidrivers get a kickback from taking their passengers to the tacky bars and willtry their luck with newcomers.
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