Wars, No Peace
Noelle Q. de Jesus
In November, I had the pleasure of spending two nights in an area I had not seen in nearly 25 years. Pen Philippines put me up in a pretty place in Pasay, an ancestral family home renovated as a beautiful boutique hotel two blocks away from Roxas Boulevard on what used to be Vito Cruz. From my window, I could see acacia trees, a large old estate with a great lawn, a commercial strip that included the old Harrison Plaza and the new Century Plaza Hotel. And in the distance, there was Manila Bay. Having enjoyed an idyllic childhood at an elementary school on nearby Williams Street, I was familiar with the neighborhood.
Pasay, that part of it anyway, is charming. I thought this again when I arrived in the Grab that unfortunately took over half an hour from the airport when it ought to have taken ten minutes. As I ate my takeaway Jollibee yumburger, the famed Manila Bay sunset made an appearance, bathing my room in orange and violet light.
The PEN National Congress took place on the 4th floor of the Cultural Centre of the Philippines. Within minutes of entering, nostalgia wafted up from floors and walls like fragrance from an old bottle of perfume, broken by accident. Memories of what I had seen there flashed before me: ballet productions, concerts, and so many of the late Rolando Tinio’s genius translations of classic theatre for Teatro Pilipino with his wife and muse, Ella Luansing.
At noon, a dear writer friend took me to lunch, and we drove past Imelda Marcos’ haunted Manila Film Centre where I had seen Peque Gallaga’s Oro, Plata, Mata, which now apparently puts on drag queen shows. We traversed a network of gleaming new roads and I wondered, where were we? The signs read Ocean Drive, Marina Way, Sunset Boulevard. The destination? The posh and polished S Maison where we had mouth-watering gising-gising and tofu sisig at Golden Cowrie. After the sessions, all the Pen delegates gathered for Korean barbecue dinner al fresco, by the marina. It was a delightful sojourn into a nearly forgotten pocket of my hometown.
I have lived overseas for nearly two decades, and each time I return, I find things, apart from the family and friends who live here, that redeem the city. When circumstances take me back to an old haunt, neighborhood or place that loomed large in my past, I look at all that’s remained the same, all that’s changed. Katipunan near my alma mater. Legaspi Village in Makati where I first worked. Malate by Remedios Circle which was a date night destination. The narrow avenues in the concrete jungle that is Ortigas. The constantly shape-shifting Greenhills. The bustling, blossoming Cubao. All these places that were my teenage playground, and still so many districts beyond the bubbles I usually occupy: Alabang, Antipolo, Pateros, Fairview. No matter where I find myself in the city, I’ve only felt comfortable and very much at home. I fall back into the lingo, thrill with the vibe of running into friends by chance, and enjoy the crowds of smiling faces, the singing department store ladies, and the always talky taxi drivers who these days have so much more to say. As for the rest, I accept with resignation: the mess and morass, the traffic and trials, the pollution, the politics, the poverty.
In the last two years and three quarters, I too have become less inclined to visit, and I hate to admit it. I hate the wars that are taking place in the city and country I call home. And I’m not talking about Marawi. I’m talking about the horrible drug war that has taken too many lives without due process. I’m talking about the ongoing war online that has irrevocably changed relationships between those who criticize the President and those who are so blindly loyal to him, they invoke his 2006 win as the be-all-and-end-all argument for everything he does.
Finally, there is the war that predates the Duterte administration, but has nevertheless worsened every year. It’s the fight that people wage daily on the roads: the traffic. The insane battle across distances running enthusiasts actually pay money to race on foot.
When I left, the 10-plus kilometre distance between Project 4 and Ayala Centre took 45 minutes at peak, over an hour in rain. Those days are gone. Today, only the most meticulous avoidance of peak times and a kind of neurotic dependence on the Waze app will get you from X to Y in an hour and a half—and that’s only if you’re lucky.
Mid-2016, I took a group of visiting Singaporeans—two poets, a publisher and his marketing assistant—for readings at Ateneo and UP. Even with a portable router, we couldn’t get a Grab nor would any taxi stop to take us from the latter to the former. Finally, we hopped on an “ikot” jeep to get into UP and the shabbier Palma Hall. The visitors were delighted by their maiden jeepney ride, pleased by the crowded green campus and surprised at the street vendors of candy, cigarettes, soft drinks and snack food, all squatting on the floor of the hall as we walked past, as though they were outdoors on the street, and not indoors in a hall of learning.
When the readings were over, I glanced at my watch then hurriedly called them a Grab.
“You have to leave for your hotel now,” I said, practically pushing them into the vehicle when it came. Their hotel was on the other side of the city by Mall of Asia, and it was 5pm on payday Friday. “Leave any later, and you’ll be stuck on the road for three hours.” They hastily obeyed, looking somewhat stricken. It took them two hours.
Last August, the husband and I came home for five days, and we had a good time because we confined ourselves to the usual Makati bubble. At a tapa place in the heart of Salcedo, I gamely trapped first one and then another baby cockroach crawling along the bar in my paper serviette, crumpling them up in my fist before handing it to the embarrassed waitress who apologized as though it were her fault. We saw friends in BGC and the Polo Club. We did errands in Ayala and Greenbelt.
On our last morning, just after 5am with the sky still inky, I sat in the lobby of the small hotel in Salcedo village as the husband checked us out. I waited for our cab to the airport. Through the glass, I could see the hotel security guard standing at his post by the door.
All of a sudden, a motorcycle turned the corner from Paseo de Roxas and with growling speed, drove right by our little hotel. The security guard ducked behind the four-foot high concrete wall, so only the top of his head visible, his eyes trained on the rider. I was terrified but could not move.
The motorcycle then slowed. The rider glanced at the guard still crouched. My eyes were fixed on him; my heart in my throat.
And then the guard popped up all jack-in-the-box like, and began to laugh. He called out to the rider and waved. It was just a joke. A hilarious prank. They knew each other. In that moment, I came face to face with our humor and our ability to joke about ugly national realities. We are just that funny. We are just that sad.
My last morning in Pasay in November, I woke at six to have my breakfast in the hotel café: eggs, smoked fish fried crisp, garlic rice and coffee. This so I could leave in a Grab before 8:30am and reach my parents’ home without getting trapped in the traffic. Two drivers cancelled on me. Then one showed up. He was wise and congenial, but he guaranteed nothing. Instead, he obeyed Waze driving through the uglier, sadder parts of Pasay going a much longer way upon city backroads I’d forgotten were there. We went through Paco, Pandacan, and Sta Mesa, then emerging deep in San Juan, where traffic swelled and slowed. Then we reached the streets of Cubao, and made the cross to Santolan.
All the while, we talked politics. He had voted for Duterte, but regretted it. Pals on the Caloocan police force told him the terrible things they had to do. If they chose not to, someone higher could trap them in the middle and put them on a list. He described the dirty dealings with infrastructure projects according to friends who worked in construction. We talked about our dirty government traditions and the way corruption is built into the system.
“Even if you’re a good guy, you get sucked in. You’re asked to sign something, then money arrives. What to do? It’s a trap.” We both sighed.
The ride took an hour and fifteen minutes. And even though the conversation shifted to happier topics: his wife, their son, we were both sad at the end of the journey. “Everyone here is trapped,” he said.
This is the war torn city I still call home. It’s the city I love and that I hate, that inspires me and drives me crazy, that I yearn for and yet must leave, whose people are the best but also the worst, the most flawed yet also the finest, that contains so much hopelessness, so much desperation but also so much fervent, undeniable hope. And there is nothing I can do. I leave only to return once more. And again.