Soyez Realistes (Be Realistic)

There’s this scene in David Lean’s adaptation of E.M. Forster’s novel “A Passage to India” where the good Dr. Aziz meets the sympathetic Mrs. Moore for the first time in a deserted mosque in the middle of the night. After finding out that Mrs. Moore is newly arrived in India, the doctor becomes concerned for her safety. Looking over the River Ganges, he tells her how there are crocodiles there, and even the bodies of the dead that float by.

But the Ganges is sparkling in the moonlight, and Mrs. Moore, captivated by Dr. Aziz’s description, responds almost breathlessly: “What a terrible river!” She pauses, then, “What a wonderful river.”

I left the Philippines a few weeks ago (hence my absence from the pages of Davao Today) to do my PhD in the Netherlands. I expect to be gone for at least a year, and more if all goes well with this current endeavor. This is certainly an incomparable amount of time to the decades spent by numerous OFWs, migrants, and exiles away from their homeland, but still enough to trigger some reflection about the certainties and uncertainties of going away and coming back.

To a certain degree this sort of introspection had started five years ago, when I moved to Davao and began to see Manila, where I had spent the first 30 years of my life, through a distancing lens. This view was refreshed, more vividly than ever, when I spent my last few days in Manila – down many familiar paths and corners – before finally flying out.

In the last few years I have seen how Davaoenos are fiercely proud of their city (as they ought to be). However, it must be admitted that sometimes that pride is expressed in a contrasting manner, i.e., Davao is cleaner than (insert other city here), or Davao has no crime unlike (insert other city here), with the other city often being Manila.

In Davao I have been asked, on more than one occasion, if the (mostly horror) stories one hears about Manila are true. What can I say? I say the truth: yes, the traffic is the stuff of nightmares. Yes, many streets are filthy. Yes, there’s crime – I’ve been a victim once or twice (or thrice) myself.

What I always want to say, but fail to do so while within the limited framing of such yes-or-no questions, is that nevertheless, I love the metropolis of my birth. There is nothing else like it, and it will always be my home. But I must admit that I am secretly scared of being asked to probe further into what I would spontaneously claim to be the truth. After all, how can I possibly still say that, after admitting to everything that is horrible about it?

It’s a fair question, and one that I have always found difficult to answer. But with my leaving and the recent issue of the jeepney phase-out, I thought that I might at least try to revisit it again.

In a way the jeepney is seen as a synecdoche of the Philippine capital: dirty, polluted and polluting, stress-inducing, crime-breeding (in terms of personal experience, most crimes I’ve seen/experienced took place in jeepneys). One writer went so far as to declare that jeepneys are “proof of everything that’s wrong with society”.

Some say that it is sentimentality that prevents us from embracing change (whether with regard to jeepneys or Manila). It is so easy to set this up as a straw man since emotions can so easily be dismissed, especially by self-proclaimed harbingers of “the new”. But I for one would not altogether brush sentimentality aside. It is in our nature as beings who have memory and history. Wielded well these are important tools to teach future generations, and to arouse empathy in others (for example, those who “weren’t there”).

Yet, it is not just sentimentality that generates my love of place (including everything in it, like jeepneys). There is also the attraction of the potential for adventure that a chaotic city like Manila holds, the risk one can run into in the poorly-lit alleys, not knowing where sidewalks end and roads begin, all while weaving through vendors, pushcarts, tricycles, and palm readers, and dodging less-than-salubrious characters along the way. The rewards range from the modest to the gloriously unexpected: a delicacy in a grimy hole-in-the-wall, rediscovering a forgotten historical marker on a decrepit building – not unlike riding “topload” on a jeepney through a steep mountain pass and beholding a landscape in a way that only angels could.

This is not to glorify mere risk-taking as such, but it could be channeled not only to find the little joys of the everyday, but also to help understand why people do it – why they sabit (hang) on to the backs of jeeps, why the jeeps are karag-karag (broken down), why they live tenuously sa ilalim ng tulay (under the bridge), why they would choose to become illegal settlers in the city over what is popularly perceived to be a “better” life in the countryside.

Many of the Filipinos who have expressed their enthusiasm for the current jeepney modernization program cite their concern for health and safety, in the same way that others deplore the decay and poverty of Manila. These in themselves are not objectionable positions, but it will ultimately defeat its purpose if it is still not based on a genuine understanding of others that can only be reached via an openness to be uncomfortable, to be inconvenienced, to be disturbed.

Why do people sabit? Perhaps this is the only way to get home as quickly as possible to one’s family. Why are jeeps often in such a state of disrepair? Think about it, would drivers really sacrifice their vehicle’s condition if they can help it? If it failed they would also be involved in the accident. But between saving up for repairs and being able to buy three square meals a day, is there really a choice? Why do people live under the bridge? Perhaps they’ve calculated the chances of being struck once by a calamity, vis-à-vis constantly enduring the distance, and the lack of services and opportunities in some ill-designed relocation area. Why do they choose to “squat” in the city? The reasons are myriad, but it is certainly not so that they can remain poor.

Yet, this still cannot capture why I love Manila. Maybe it is so difficult to articulate an answer because, well, there isn’t one. I cannot articulate it in terms of what Manila is like, nor in terms of what Manila is not like; it isn’t that simple. Neither can it be framed as what Manila could potentially become, or what my hopes for it are. You can make predictions about a place without loving it, and hope is not synonymous to love, but its product.

I’d like to think that that love springs from, or lies somewhere in the tension between the emotive force of sentimentality and the energetic drive to push for something better. It lies somewhere between hair-raising risk and looking forward to a time when Filipinos no longer have to take any that are unnecessary and unforgiving.

It lies in the pause between how terrible it is, and how wonderful.

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