Quezon City is Manila’s San Fernando Valley, a sprawling community housing the overflow of people from the capital (in fact technically it has more people than Manila itself). It is also the home of the University of the Philippines and, I had heard, a funky indie-student scene in the quiet, leafy streets near the campus.
Although its pretty far from the coast where I was staying, Quezon is reachable – in theory – on the subway. I made two attempts at this and then gave up. Manila’s subway is the WORST. Massively oversubscribed, lines just to buy a ticket can stretch to forty minutes – and that is not forty minutes of patient queuing, but forty minutes of sweaty shoving. When I finally got to the platform I was frankly frightened to see the near-fisticuffs breaking out over commuters desperate to squeeze into already-suffocating carriages. I backed out, forfeited my fare and hailed a taxi.
I still don’t know if this was the right choice. The train might have been a probable security risk and definite sweat bath, but it would have taken me just fifteen terrifying minutes to Quezon. Instead, I now had in front of me a mind numbing nearly two-and-a-half-hour ordeal in the infamous Manila traffic. The cab crawled up EDSA, the much-hated arterial road which clogs under the sheer weight of vehicles. We shuffled forward, metre by metre, my cabbie cursing and shaking his head – as he must do every day. I had no idea how long we would be, or even where we were. All I could do was wait. Outside, as night fell, gigantic billboards loomed by the sides of the road, taunting me with their peppy slogans (“Its more fun in the Philippines!” courtesy of the Department of Tourism) or their bizarre choice of models. Icons of trash culture towered before me one after the other, Ivanka Trump for Trump Tower Manila (“Live exquisitely!”), Paris Hilton and then a monstrous collosus – Leighton Meester of Gossip Girl who blocked out the setting sun. I still don’t know what she was promoting.
Finally we reached Quezon and plunged into a different world of leafy American-style suburbia, with ranch houses and upscale little businesses. Cute boys rode around on skateboards. This was where I was to get off for my destination.
“Vincent Van Gogh Is Bipolar” is a unique little restaurant in a converted Quezon City apartment. Although it took half my night to get there, it was completely worth it. I loved it. Guests are ushered into an eccentrically decorated and moodily-lit lounge room, full of books and trinkets, and seating no more than eight or ten people by the owner, Jetro. He is charming. He then explains the menu: there is only a set course. This is chosen by Jetro and made up of ingredients scientifically proven to induce endorphin production in the brain, leading to a sense of wellbeing. He explains that he began researching the effects of diet on mood as part of his own therapy and has since decided to incorporate it into his own ‘slow food’ restaurant. While you wait for the food, he invites you to write on a wall, carve your name on the sideboard or flip through a book of artistic nudes. The chandeliers throw creepy shadows over the walls, and the toilet is decorated with white light skeletons.
Of course all of this appealed to me. But the food itself, when it came, was also surprisingly astonishly good. I had a “Virginia Woolf” soup which was spicy and sour, followed by chicken in guava sauce (amazing!) with black Philippines mountain rice. The whole time Jetro would drift by to explain how the ingredients would enduce my brain to perform its mood-lifting magic (he particularly recommended honey and cabbage, as a matter of interest). Other times he would talk about art or the Philippines or his backpacking trip to Lithuania.
I was so touched that I left him a present when I went, a book on Philippine art I had just bought, and he reciprocated with a book of his own travel photography ( a renaissance man!) and signed it in Tagalog, Lithuanian and his local tribal language of Ilocano.
I had meant to check out the nearby bars of Quezon City’s Cubao after this (see below) but it was so late that I decided to head home instead – fully satisfied . I guess the food had worked. I was in a great mood. The journey back – with no traffic – took twenty minutes.