Sunday, November 22, 2009

Manila in 6 days after 16 years.

Notes on a sort of homecoming.

A man suddenly steps in front of our car, gazing blankly ahead at us. My brother has to swerve deftly to avoid hitting him. The man doesn’t seem at all aware of our presence, or the danger he has posed to us or to him.

I’ve been wondering if that man is symbolic of my visit here, my first since I left 16 years ago. But what would he symbolize? Total obliviousness or indifference to danger? A desperation so deep he doesn’t care about his life anymore? A passive aggressiveness (run me over if you dare, and I will give you hell)? This country’s sense of frustration embodied in his emaciated body, his drugged-out stare, his seething silence?

There’s a new Manila and the old Manila. The new Manila is the Fort, Makati, Ortigas, with their highrises and malls, a sort of tropical LA. The old Manila is just older, more rundown and decrepit, the city’s old shell that it hasn’t been able to discard. The buildings are worn down, the wood burnt a deep dark brown; the concrete buildings seem to have acquired a thick layer of soot; the sides of the underpass towards Quiapo are encrusted with soot and dirt and don’t seem to have been repainted in years, the after-effect, I am told, of the recent flood which inundated this part of the city up to a story high. The streets are a chaos of cars, motorcycles, pedicabs, jeeps, street hawkers and pedestrians, and no order seems to exist. Everything seems on edge.

Every morning at the hotel I’m staying at, the breakfast room is filled with old or middle-aged white men and their young Filipina girlfriends or wives, plus the occasional girlfriend’s family. But the prostitutes are no longer in this area; I hear they’ve been moved up to Quezon Boulevard, where they start lining the avenue at around 10 PM.

My family’s street has become a crowded warren of apartment buildings and walled-in, heavily gated houses. The house next door burned down years ago and is now some kind of car repair shop. From my old bedroom, I can see right through the street running past it, something I had never seen before. On the other hand, a new apartment building has been built right in front of our house, blocking the view of the Manila Bay sunset I used to gaze at every afternoon, sitting at my desk and writing.

Most of the Filipinos here are a lot more gentle than I remember. I forget how gentle a people we are. And yet there’s always this hard edge among many others, a kind of hostility waiting to brim over, a tough live-or-die aggressiveness that’s waiting for a target. Others are as hardened as they get. At the sari-sari across my hotel, the woman eyes me suspiciously, sizing me up to determine if I’m a tourist, answers me curtly, and overcharges me for a pair of corn chips and an ice drop.

Dapitan Market: pure mayhem, lots of kitsch, but an occasional find, such as capiz plate overruns. You pay the watch-your-car man 5 pesos, and at Dapitan Market, they demand 20, because there are 4 of them in their barkada.

Along the highway called C5, drivers are advised to stay far from the right, where kids throw rocks at passing cars.

At the Aristocrat Restaurant, a candidate for senator, Rey Langit, a former radio reporter, sits at a long table with about 20 of his campaign staff, all dressed in black t-shirts with his name emblazoned on them.

Manny Pacquiao victory parade through Makati. We are always looking for something to be proud of, we are always looking for international affirmation. Excessive adoration leads to excessive ambition: Manny Pacquiao wants to run for public office.

Manny Pacquiao has a mistress, a smalltime actress who’s posed nude for a magazine. The papers are full of stories about her, and about Pacquiao’s long-suffering wife. Manny Pacquiao is now officially a Filipino alpha male.

Another source of pride and affirmation: the Makati Greenbelt system of malls. Some shops here have not even opened in the US; the ones that have are much tinier than the supersized stores here.

Filipino food is to die for. Even the value meal at Max’s is worth more than the 2 bucks it goes for, and the pinakbet with lechon kawali at my humble hotel in Malate is a work of art. The bibingka at the duty free shops is real galapong. The crispy pata at Aristocrat is sinful and the sans rival to die for. And Via Mare’s lunch menu (kare kare, bagnet, lumpiang sariwa, sugpo in coconut sauce) is divine; so are their bibingka with cheese and salted egg, puto bungbong, and halo halo. So worth the trip to the country alone.

Middle-aged American man with 7-year old Filipino boy. Pedophile or surrogate dad? So, in my hotel so far I’ve seen white trash males with young women, older women, young boys, and transvestites. Something for everyone, I guess.

Marina: where my sister and I have a bucket of oysters and bangus sisig for all of 10 bucks.

Tiendesitas is the place to go to for nearly everything, from antiques to clothing to handicrafts to classic suman and avocado cake.

Along a street in the back of QI, people spill out of their ramshackle homes unmindful of the cars, motocycles and pedicabs passing by. Most of the houses along the Manila-Quezon City border look like their walls have been burned, full of soot and dust. My sister tells me this is how it’s always been, and I must have blocked the memory. But I never recall this part of the city being this sordid at all. Was I not looking closely then?

Quezon Avenue, lined with strip bars and saunas, as I’ve always remembered it. A sudden downpour clogs the streets, and it takes us over an hour to get to Shangri-La, a restaurant where my youngest sister and brother celebrated their graduation from high school with our lola, and where my niece held her debut before her family immigrated to the US. We have peking duck, garupa escabeche, yang chow rice, spinach and tofu with toasted garlic, and one of my nephews gets the drink of the day, iced tea with lychee and grenadine, which comes with a free stuffed toy. Sweet.

Gave 5 pesos to a woman holding up a baby girl, telling me the girl’s sob story which I didn’t really catch. Will 5 pesos even help? Got stopped by a transvestite on Del Pilar, who told me, “Excuse me, your face is very popular to me…”

The administration ticket has asked Pacquiao to run for a House seat with them. Which will probably boost the administration’s popularity among voters. And will drive this country even further down to hell. If Pacquiao really cares about his country and has half a brain, he should support the party that really has serious intentions to try and fix this place up. But maybe that’s too much to ask of our public officials?

Two days ago, a friend of my sister-in-law lost her only son to road rage, an increasingly common malady in traffic-clogged Manila. Someone got out of his car and shot him pointblank on Santolan Avenue. The killer is still at large.

Two young women are sitting on the sofa of my hotel lobby. Some minutes later, a Japanese man comes in with another Filipina, who introduces him to the girls. He looks one over, and smiles broadly. Yes, yes, he says, and his Filipina companion books a room. He’s a bald, shriveled country bumpkin, totally crass and loud and disgusting. And he acts like the lord of all he sees, slouching back in the sofa and shouting orders to everyone in the lobby.

Remedios Circle: visiting the old haunt, which is no longer its former self. Café Adriatico seems smaller. Penguin Café, where all the rebel poets used to hang out, looks rundown. The Circle is surrounded by places I don’t recognize and probably wouldn’t go to.

Fidel is the only person I want to see on this trip, outside of family. He overlooks my shortcomings, understands my craziness, believes in my work, and doesn’t castigate me for having chosen to live in the US. He makes absolutely no judgment of me at all. I haven’t seen him in all these 16 years; I missed him when he came to visit my office at NYU in 2000. When we meet, we just start talking again as if we had only seen each other yesterday, and we are just picking up yesterday’s conversation. Fidel’s cool.

I ask Fidel if I have become like those typical Fil-Ams who visit the Philippines and see only the negative, and have nothing good to say. He says my observations are spot on, I’m not imagining it, the city has become more decrepit and rundown, poverty levels are much higher than before, population is unstoppable as migrants continue to pour in from provinces and the birth rate keeps getting higher. The Catholic Church opposed a proposed bill in the Senate to institute birth control, and has successfully campaigned against politicians who dare oppose them.

Towards Nagtahan, the river is so clogged with refuse and debris you could hardly see the water at all. There are weird-looking lampposts along the avenue, grotesque monuments of ugliness that seem straight out of a sci-fi B-movie, each of which was a project awarded to cronies who got huge kickbacks.

I’ve lost count how many parties are running for office in May. There’s Villar/Binay, Nonoy/Roxas, Erap/Vi, Gibo/Whatever, ad nauseum--so many candidates, but no platform, no ideology, no vision.

Our politicians keep messing us up, yet we keep voting the same types of people to office. Is all this mess our own fault then? I remember what my friend Marilen said a year before I left the Philippines, that what the people really need is education. I’ve been thinking about that all these years, and I realize Marilen was right. Or I hope she is. But would better education make us choose better leaders? Would it make us more vigilant, and help us keep our leaders accountable? Would education find us our philosopher king? But aren’t we a highly educated people to begin with? So is there something else wrong, some inner demon we haven’t dared to look at? Maybe what we need is not just education, but a Dostoevsky to make us gaze into our own darkness, and not blink.

Darkness. Brownout during our family reunion: something that hasn’t happened here in a long while (brownouts were one of the many reasons I decided to leave; when I left, the city practically had no power, due to rotated 8-hour brownouts). Fortunately, this one lasts only for about 15 minutes, not enough to drive me away a second time. My siblings have gone the whole hog to let me savor the tastes of the Philippines I’ve missed all these years: lechon from Elar’s; my sister-in-law’s baked bangus, lumpiang sariwa, and ube hopia; chicharon bulaklak; sapin-sapin and Arce mantecado, queso, and avocado ice cream. We are having our reunion at my brothers’ house, which used to be my lola’s house, which was built by my grandfather in the early 1900s. Much has changed, of course, but here and there my brothers have kept the old furnishings, the original windows, even lola’s little altar to the Sacred Heart. This house has four generations of memories, and I wonder, as I look at my nieces and nephews, if these memories are as important and crucial and defining to their lives as they have been to mine.

I’ve been wondering these past six days if this is really where my roots are, if this is what I am and what continues to shape me: this innate desperation, inescapable suffering, aimlessness and bleak future. Then, after our family dinner—my last meal with my entire family before I depart for Hong Kong tomorrow, and New York the day after—my brother shows us an envelope he found in his bodega, along with old family pictures: lola’s collection of sympathy letters she received right after lolo’s death in 1929. The letters are crisp with age, some so brittle we dare not unfold them. One is a personal note from Eugene Allen Gilmore, Governor General of the Philippine Commonwealth, praising lolo as one of the finest and most promising lawyers in the country. Another comes with a news clipping analyzing lolo’s brief but brilliant career, stating lolo was being groomed to be the youngest supreme court justice ever. Lola never had the courage to look at them again and kept them even from her own children. Lolo’s sudden, tragic death changed her completely, and she shut down. Once, my mom and her siblings found lolo’s gramophone and records in the bodega and played it; lola went berserk and went around the house like a madwoman, throwing pillows and stuff around in grief. How hard it must have been to face all this future suffering alone, to be so bereft, and to know that nothing will ever be the same. Again, is this another symbolism? I don’t know anymore. I don’t know what this trip will mean to me in the next few days, in the next few years. But I know this last discovery has made me feel better about my history, and my future. And maybe, since I am inextricable from my country no matter how far I go, this says something about my country’s history and future as well. Who knows? All I can say for certain is that a voyage is worth it if you discover something new about yourself.

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