They say the beauty of Manila has already faded through time. The city has been sometimes considered a place of deception and pretentiousness with its facade smearing all of the edifices that stood before its soil. In its contradictory nature, the homeless people who reside in the city marks the irony of progress often spoken by its government. At least, it is one way to look at it.
One time, I do not know what went inside my head but from where I live in Quezon City, I took an FX and dropped off to Rizal Park for no apparent reason. I took a stroll under the 11 a.m. heat but the strong wind kept me cool so I decided to leave the park and trudge farther. I took the middle street that divide the park and walked south. The Manila Bay is in my right while Taft Avenue, the main road for most of the transport vehicles is in my left and I continued to trudge on.
I walked slowly, carefully embracing my solitary state of walking. Before I noticed it, I am having my own perspective of Manila with each step. Homeless people appeared every now and then and the black spaghetti of electricity wires hang overhead as if the wires themselves were stricken by confusion, entangling themselves not knowing which way to go. Going back to where I stand, I decided to let the wind take me wherever they might lead me and my feet wholeheartedly obeyed.
I crossed several streets not knowing where each one of them would lead me but I always try to orient myself to where I was. For the past few minutes I kept my eyes looking back to my left to catch a glimpse of the main road where I am familiar and I was able to know where I was. I passed by United Nations Avenue and again in another point of view. From where I was, the atmosphere suddenly dropped in its quiet state as if the street is sleeping. Some of the stores, clinics and laundries were closed in broad daylight. Previously from where I was, I can hear clearly the indistinct sounds of people chatting in the most casual way of knowing what happened to the soap opera last night and the current news about corrupt politicians. Or at least that is what I made out of their voices that strung along with me as I walk the silenced street. There were presence of ghosts of what could have happened. I conditioned myself to see what it would be if the place was awake in that current moment.
Residents started to open their doors and windows gently smiling at each other until I shook myself to see that it is not happening. Not now. Although there are few people who walk the street, none of them took notice of me. I passed by as if I was a ghost myself, another possibility of the future or the past remembering what was as my attention is deeply focused to the living. Walking and walking, halfway across the street I turned the volume of my music player up, sending artificial noise from my earphones to my brain, trying to fill the silence that governs the place. And all seemed quite different in an instant.
The latter part of the street was now with music in my head. It sent the false reality that the place is alive. The half of me liked it and the other despised it. Telling me that the only sense that will make this place again to be alive is to add more artificiality in its natural state like toppings of a cake just to make it more appealing and desirable. However, I consider the place to have its own consciousness and perhaps it has chosen this way to be for Manila needs sometimes to lie down and have a place for serenity—a place where it can be how you make it to be.
Passing by another intersection, I saw a street sign that says I am in the street called Maria Orosa. I do not know where that was but I was there and it makes no difference at the moment. The place was still quiet and I continued to head south without taking sides. I walked straight towards the street in passing intersections and not turning to corners. I caught a glimpse of the other side of the Supreme Court. I was in Ermita. A place where I thought I will only hear in songs and movies and will never be.
Several thoughts synthesized itself like a lightning forms in my head as if neurons coincidentally fired up several information in my brain and connected them in an instant. There was a song by a rapper famously known by the name Gloc-9 entitled “Lando” and it follows a tragic story of two lovers that are in the lower middle class of social status and Ermita was mentioned in a line that took the whole song in a twist. It goes: Isang gabi ng Huwebes, lumubog na ang araw / Doon tayo magkita, pasalubong ko’y siopao / Upang ating paghatian pagdating ng hapunan / Meron palang nakaabang sa amin na kamalasan / Eskinita sa Ermita, may sumaksak kay Elsa / Sa tagiliran isang makalawang na lanseta / Ang gamit upang makuha lang ang kan’yang pitaka… And upon seeing the Supreme Court stand high and grandiose in its soil makes me cringe. The song somehow comments upon the struggles of the people in the same condition and what is worse is the social commentary of the song through the end is the story of Lando after the incident who went insane and roam the streets of Manila as homeless without anyone, with her beloved gone and justice stands silently, contained inside the pretentious edifice to say that there exists an idea of justice but itself is never justified to exist. The power of justice is only to those who lives as grandiose as the building itself and casts no power on the narrow alleys. I moved on.
Padre Faura intersected at the end of the street and there was no more road to go forward from where I was so I took the corner to my right and as if Manila is trying to comfort me through its capitalist form, Robinsons Place Manila flaunted its sheer prosperity in the middle of nowhere. As I, who has nowhere to go seems fitting to go inside and so I did. Before I went in to a bright commercialized space, there was a small inscription beside the entrance which most people did not pay attention to. I took time to read it and it says that the very place the mall is erected is the same place where Ateneo de Municipal was once been. Perhaps it is there to educate some as I technically was when I read it to mention the name of Rizal once again to somehow glorify the place to say that he was there. However, I considered it an epitaph for a grave that was buried under the imperializing effects of consumerist society. The demolition of education and by itself making it a commodity, replacing it with towering false necessities. Despite all these, the guards continue what they had to do as I walk inside.
The cooling of air conditioning machines dried the sweat off my back and scalp. Only to find out later on that it is unhealthy but it cannot be undone so I discarded the thought off of my mind and continued to witness the abundance of things that I do not really need. I scouted and scanned all its floors. Passing by stalls one after the other and riding escalators up and down tired my legs and feet. Although it is bright inside and things do shine more than they supposed to, the comfort I needed to repress the reality of the real world outside did not suffice for mental stress turned itself into a physical one. It’s almost lunch and trying not to spend much for today, I went outside of the defamiliarized space that made all things a spectacle and nothing more.
I ended up on the other side of the mall. Street signs show that I was in Pedro Gil but once again, there was no road to keep moving forward so I took the direction to my left when I saw the walls of Philippine General Hospital coming into view towards Taft Avenue and turned right on the first corner that welcomed me.
I was at Guerrero Street and kept moving forward. Crossing Malvar and Nakpil, the places were still governed by silence and once I passed by a place that I think is abandoned. Ceilings were torn down, the wood panels of the second floor of the house were drastically misaligned, the iron grills in front of the windows were covered with rust and its white paint are slowly turning to brown. While several coffee shops presented themselves one after the other. Upon reaching Remedios, I thought that it’s time to lose myself around Manila a little more so I took a right turn towards Roxas Boulevard and setting my back against Taft Avenue—from the place I am familiar towards a place I never knew existed.
I ended up on a small circular park that can be considered as a plaza. Only finding out later on that the place is called Adriatico Circle (Google Maps, however names this place as Remedios Circle). There was a basketball court where some kids are playing and pedicab drivers were sheltered under the shade of a small tree and I saw them looking at me. Perhaps they know that I am not from this place. I am an alien in a sense not that of an extraterrestrial creature but alienated from the place that I thought I already knew from the books I have read and the movies I have seen and the experience is not anything like it.
My feet feel like screaming and my soles began to burn. The heat of the concrete spreads from the surface of my shoes to the inside. I managed to get a drink inside a convenience store nearby next to Café Adriatico and caught up to the ghost of myself outside wandering alone, staring at the statue of Marcelo H. Del Pilar and wondering why he is there.
Malate at noon perhaps is still without the cars and jeepneys roaming around. The place is without engine sounds and carbon monoxide though some cars drive by but only a few of them passed. Under the heat of the sun at noon, I drink my bottled carbonated soda and along the indifferent and strange cool breeze of summer, I felt comfortable. The heat was weirdly just right and enough for me to pass through Malate. I walked straight through Adriatico until I reached an intersection in Quirino. From then on life took hold of me in its most basic form.
There was a slums area nearby Victoria Court and I saw children playing with shoe boxes with dolls that are in a bad shape. Some are smeared with dirt, others had missing limbs and slowly, I walked to catch a glimpse of life that is entirely different to me. Through the children, I saw the innocence on the way they play. Running around and chasing one another while others play on the sidewalk with old toys. The warmth of the sun suddenly felt indifferent and the sight gives me the warmth of an imagined family within the minds of small individuals. I saw a woman in a pushcart by the sidewalk, sleeping and by the sight, I assumed that the pushcart itself is her home. Dirty pillows and a blanket covered her under the shade of a tree in a hot afternoon. The sun may only be a counter-effect to balance the cold silence that are only filled by the laughs of innocent children.
However, Manila strikes you in your most vulnerable state. A couple of children in their pre-teen age approached me asking for the bottle of soda I am holding but as they ask, one immediately attempted to grab it and hopefully my reflexes was enough to keep it away from his hand. I said no cold-heartedly and they left me after trying to persuade me several times.
I walked past Quirino, alongside Manila Zoo, following where the street will end until I ended up on Ocampo and turned to my left. Now I know where I will go. Going straight to Ocampo Street, crossing Roxas Boulevard, I find solace under the ramp of CCP.
The wind blew strong against my skin, drying my sweat on my back and on my scalp and the forming tears around my eyes. I sat there for almost an hour staring past the cars as the drivers also stared at me. I walked for almost two hours. My feet are screaming in agony. My stomach yearns for food. My heart longs for her as all events that transpired before today flashed back as I sit still. Refusing to walk anymore, my mind rushes in to backtrack and continue the walk to the past. Back to the place that I knew and found out the reason why I did the walk. The process of losing myself inside the city of deception, pretentiousness and the crippling figure of the façade edifices. The people in the city, the silent streets and unjustified justice is the mental disorder of the place. The city itself is sick and suffering from a psychological illness because of torn down history replaced by imposed system to capitalize on the things that people do not need.
Only did I realize while sitting under the ramp of the acclaimed Cultural Center of the Philippines that the thoughts flashed because I was in Pasay and in the outskirts of Manila. All of these came after the drug the city has implanted on me while I was distracted to all of the sceneries that occupied my mind. Lino Brocka was right. However, I took on a different flight without the neon lights. The claws that urge people to experience Manila is by the opinions of others about it only to find out first-hand that Manila itself is a schizophrenic space governed by its own paradoxes and inconsistencies. A roller-coaster ride of numbing pain of silence and innocent noises of ghosts that take you away from your own reality. Manila has been a victim of its own effects that the city has turned into a ghost and a memory and its physical being only manifests the memory of a beauty of what once was and transforming all consciousness that lives within it.
Until then, Manila will continue to create the same characters such as Lando and Julio Madiaga. The former who died a symbolic death by losing his sanity after his beloved Elsa has been killed by a robber and the latter who died in the hands of the angry mob after avenging his beloved Ligaya. The characters who only sought to live a good life but was eaten by the nature of Manila. It is either you die, or fall into madness. On and on, the chorus of the song “Lando” will play as Francis Magalona sings: Huwag kang mabahala, may nagbabantay sa dilim / Nag-aabang sa sulok at may hawak na patalim / Di ka hahayaan na muli pang masaktan / Huwag ka nang matakot sa dilim.
The place that guards its inhabitants and at the same time kills them at their most vulnerable state. Caressing your back as it betrays you once for the very last time.