24 Hours in Manila: My Time with the Hobbits of Ermita

manila streets

manila streets (Photo credit: everywhereATonce)

While I’ve been to lots of weird places in my life, I had yet to visit the Philippines, until my most recent trip.  I had a brief layover, and decided to try to get a sense of this mega-city, or at least as good a ‘feel’ for the place as one can with a short exposure.

Jumping into an airport taxi, en route to my hotel (located 6km away according to TripAdvisor) and 45 minutes into the ride with bumper-to-bumper traffic, I was getting chatty with the driver, as he aggressively weaved his way through gridlock.  I asked him ‘If you had 24 hours to see something in Manila, what would you see?’  He considered this for a moment and replied ‘Nothing!’ followed by gales of laughter.  This did not bode well.

My impression of the city is that while I really enjoyed meeting and interacting with Filipino people, the city is rather a hole.  It is overcrowded, and the infrastructure doesn’t appear to have been updated since the late 80’s / early 90’s.  Things are dirt cheap (even a hotel mini-bar beer was only $2.50), food is crazy cheap, fuel is cheap – so I suspect there is a huge amount of price subsidization going on from the government. Added into the massive population of the country, I have a bad feeling about the long-term economic sustainability of the Philippines model as I observed it.  They must spend considerably, and soon, to prevent Manila from falling into further disrepair, and I’m not sure that exporting people is really the most viable economic strategy anymore. Anyways, that is my 24 hour economic assessment of the place.

English: Philippine National Museum in Manila,...

English: Philippine National Museum in Manila, Philippines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, for my layover, I was left to my devices to see what I wanted to see. My partner, who had been to the Philippines before, told me about this crazy bar called ‘The Hobbit House’.  It’s a bar where the wait staff are all ‘little people’.  I’m not sure why this caught my fancy as something that I HAD to see for myself, but in the absence of anything more compelling being suggested to me by my cabbie, I decided to make that my evening destination.

The Hobbit House, Manila. Photo courtesy of TripAdvisor

Getting there is often half the fun, and no exception in my case. I grabbed a random taxi, and was warned that we would hit traffic, and to expect it would take over an hour to get there. Having nothing better to do, and having agreed on a 500 Peso fare (about $11), off we went. It was a harrowing ride at times, given that Manila traffic is lunacy, and my driver was very intent to focus equally on dancing in his seat, singing along with the tunes on the radio (badly), chatting with me intermittently, and once in a while, actually looking at where he was going. Often at too high a speed, often too close to other vehicles for my liking, and not without rather judicious use of the brake pedal.  However, I’ve been the passenger in crazily driven vehicles on numerous occasions in my life, so I just took this one in stride, and settled in to yet another rendition of Journey.

The bar/restaurant is really quite harmless. It’s not seedy, the little people aren’t wearing bikinis with number tags on them, it’s just a themed bar.  I’m not sure why little people are a natural tie-in with the ‘Hobbit’ theme. None of the little people who served me were particularly hirsute, nor large-footed.  All in all, this is a strangely themed bar. The décor is very dark, with lots of candles and electrified hurricane lamps. On the walls hang pictures / paintings featuring Lord of the Rings imagery – in many cases with the faces of the characters cut out, and pictures of the wait staff superimposed.  The bar is very well stocked, featuring a couple of hundred international beers, and a good array of spirits.  The bar staff needed a little help making me a Manhattan, but they did have Maker’s Mark, so they couldn’t get it too far wrong.  Many of the foods on offer are midget-themed – I had ‘Taquitos’ which were ridiculously cutely shaped mini-tacos about 1/8th scale. (Why is a Lord of the Rings themed bar in the Philippines serving mediocre Mexican food?) The live music (not played by a little person) was inoffensive, bordering on the amusing (heavy on the 80’s power ballad theme, with a little too much Paul Simon thrown in the mix). All in all, you can do worse in Manila than settling in here for some pub grub and a few cocktails.  (Photo from www.travelnonu.com)

While I was there, I asked myself the question “is this exploitative?”  The bar was allegedly opened in the 70’s, by a US Peace Corps guy* whose intentions were simply to find gainful employment for an overlooked sector in Manila. I’ve heard stories that at times, the bar has had ‘midget variety shows’ and indeed, has offered ‘Dwarf tossing’ but no evidence of such remained on my visit. The bar was doing a reasonable trade, and no one was making untoward remarks. Indeed, I didn’t feel comfortable taking pictures, since I would’ve stood out as a tourist – everyone was just acting like everything was normal.  Which, it was. Why shouldn’t they be waitstaff at a ‘normal’ restaurant?  Sure, their mobility is not as brisk as someone more ‘usual-sized’.  But otherwise, no reason they COULDN’T work in pretty much any industry besides… professional basketball.  So, while it was rather confusing that in Manila they had decided to concentrate and work at one restaurant, to be their ‘hook’ to attract clientele, it seemed a bit unnecessary.

In closing – if you’re in Manila, and you’ve got nothing to do, then why not go have a drink with the friendliest little people I’ve ever met.  One drink to rule them all.  Oh, and make sure to leave a big tip for your little waiter/waitress.

* Manila’s Hobbit House bar: Full of little people and big love

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