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In books and movies, I always love the parts with the bazaars. I don’t mean the modern shopping malls. The original bazaar, or the Middle Eastern souk, was a marketplace where merchants and vendors sold exotic products and everyone haggled, and you kept a sharp eye on your money bag so the pickpockets wouldn’t get it. It was part pirate’s chest, part treasure cave, mysterious, exciting, and full of infinite variety.

The closest approximation to a bazaar that I’ve found in the Philippines is Manila’s Divisoria, to survive which you need to dress simply, anesthetize your sense of smell, keep your street smarts ready and your eye on your wallet, and get ready to haggle. You can practically furnish your whole house from Divisoria on a budget, if you had a mind to do so. Here you find dresses, blouses, shirts, skirts, shorts, pants, socks, stockings, shoes, gloves, underwear, accessories, toys, bags, bed linens, bathroom things, kitchen things, fish, meat, dried fish, vegetables, fruits, and almost everything else you might want under the sun, cheek by jowl with one another. Tutuban Mall, the most high-end mall in the place, sells items a bit lower than Greenhills prices; if you brave the crowds at Divisoria Mall and 168 Mall and the area around Gen. Luna Street (formerly Calle Anloague, the setting of some of the scenes in Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere), you’ll find things sell at even less. In fact, I’ve noticed that things get cheaper the farther you get from Tutuban, if you had the inclination.

A word of caution, though: if you are the sort of person who prefers branded, high-end things, then stick to the malls you like best. If you, like me, go shopping on a budget and don’t really mind brands, then Divisoria is a nice place to start. You won’t be able to get the feel of the whole place in just one visit of a few hours, though; I’ve been going there for years now and still feel overwhelmed at times by the sheer variety of items, the crazy confusion of the streets, and the number of people. Stick to your list of things you need to buy or else you might find your budget woefully stretched by all the things you see; I still end up buying extras whenever I go there, when I see something I really want to have but fear won’t be there when I return, such as a certain blouse or skirt or dress or accessory.

Bargains appear in the most unlikely places, such as the imitation Louis Vuitton “LVOE” bag I got for P100, the lovely moccasins with zipper accents I got for the same price, the pink “ballet shoes” I got for P80, and the “Copacabana” rubber sandals I got for P25 which are in the same style as the original Ipanema sandals my sister got for around P1000. I buy underwear with caution; although panties and socks are all right and very cheap (starting at P10 each), “underwire” bras tend to get out of shape after a while. I’ve seen “Avon” underwear sold on the sidewalks at times, and have been told they’re “factory overruns,” but haven’t tried those yet. I also view electronics with caution, as I’ve been told it is hard to get these exchanged provided you could remember exactly which particular hole in the rabbit warren you bought it from in the first place. I buy plastic wares and bed linens though, and always hankies, cotton buds, and wet wipes. The last two sell for P10 and P20 each, respectively, which is way, way less than they cost elsewhere, and the cotton buds have wooden stems instead of plastic. Hankies may sell for P10 each at the lowest, and are about the same as the ones you’d get in higher-end stores if you’re not looking for branded ones like Caruso. Shorts and tank tops sell for P35 each at the lowest if you buy only one; you can buy three for P100. Cheap t-shirts and blouses sell for P35 at the lowest, but they’re made of thin, flimsy material; you can get relatively better ones for P50 each, and haggle for wholesale prices as well. The more formal cotton blouses and dresses such as you might wear to the office go for P120 and up. Satin and nylon nightgowns and pajama or doll blouse/shorts sets can go for as low as P50 as well. At the moment, those pretty sundresses with smocked bodices abound in myriad colors and patterns for P50 each; I’ve been buying those as they’re great for going to the mall or the beach. I bought some at P25 to P35 a while back, but it seems prices have inflated. Accessories are plentiful; “leather” bags such as you might use for the office may go for as low as P150, while tote bags, messenger bags, and smaller purses, pouches, and the like may go for P35 to P50 each and for three for P100 if you’re lucky. Children’s toys may go as low as P10 each; hair accessories for as low as P5; belts for P35 each and up. Little trinkets for wedding, debut or baptism mementoes are also plentiful and varied; don’t forget to ask for the wholesale price. I’ve noticed that Harajuku fashion seems to have gone mainstream in Divisoria at last; if you want to stock up on those Lolita accessories, little hats, feathered and sequined hairbands, hats, and masks, striped gloves and socks, and even wigs, you’ll find them on Divisoria sidewalks nowadays. I even saw “Mulawin” wings on display!

168 Mall, especially, is a rabbit’s warren within a rabbit’s warren. The rabbit’s warren of a treasure-hoarding pack rat, forgive the mixed metaphors. For all the times I’ve been there, I still get lost in all the crazy corridors. Word of advice: just keep going till you find the escalators, which are usually near the exits. You’ll either hit the outside exits, or the exit that leads to the other building if you’re on the ground floor. When buying something, don’t forget to haggle; ask for the last price and bring it down even more, and if you’re buying more than one item from a certain store, ask for the wholesale price, and haggle it down to less. This is a mall only in name; absolute fixed prices are seldom.

There are a lot of jeepney routes to Divisoria, including the Cubao – Divisoria and Baclaran – Divisoria runs, as well as Quiapo, Malanday-Malinta, Port Area, Kalentong, and Morayta-Gastambide. If you don’t find a jeep that goes directly to the place, you can always take any jeep that passes Recto or Avenida Rizal, and catch another jeep at the junction of the two roads. If you prefer the LRT, you can get off at D. Jose Station, or get off at Recto if you take the Recto-Santolan MRT, and catch a jeep at the Avenida / Recto crossing. Word of advice: if traffic is heavy by the time you get to the Recto / Reina Regente / Jose Abad Santos junction (that’s the stoplight at the elementary school), you can get off and walk the last few blocks down Recto. There’s a line of clothing stalls at the right side of the road between the junction and Tutuban Mall where you can find good bargains. When you get to the first Tutuban building, there’s a small alley right across the road (and the railroad tracks); walk down it and turn right and you find 168 Mall. Go out the far end of 168 Mall and turn right again and walk straight and you find Gen. Luna Street; keep walking straight down the small alley with stuffed toys and kitchenwares and you find Divisoria Mall. If you don’t go to Divisoria Mall but instead turn right at the stuffed toys stalls, behind what seems like a barangay hall / police station, and then left at the next corner, you will find clothes, cloth, bed linens and footwear in dizzying array. Go down this street to the end, turn left, and then turn left at the next corner, you’ll find a street full of all kinds of mementoes or “giveaways” for important occasions, which you can buy either unadorned or completed. Straight down this street is Divisoria Mall, turn left again at the next corner and you’re back on the street with clothes. You’re never completely lost as long as you find the railroad tracks, as these lead back to Tutuban Mall and the jeepneys. An alternative route to Luna from Tutuban involves walking straight down Recto following the railroad tracks till you get to McDonalds; turn left here and walk straight and you’ll find the stuffed toys stalls and the street to 168 Mall and Divisoria Mall.

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