Wednesday, March 24, 2004

cities

Over my lunch hour yesterday, I walked to the nearby post office to mail my fiction submissions. One of the things required was an International Reply Coupon to accompany each submission, but when I asked to purchase some I was informed that the only place to get them was at the main post office in Quiapo in the City of Manila.

Well, I live in Pasig City and my office is in the City of San Juan. Going to the main post office would mean having to cross Quezon City before reaching the City of Manila. A nightmarish scenario for someone like me who just eschews long land trips, especially through traffic. But if I didn't, I could kiss any chance of potential publiction goodbye.

Impulsively, I flagged a cab and asked if we could make the trip to Quiapo and back to San Juan in a reasonable time. The driver shook his head, citing horrible traffic near Sta. Ana.

"Well, do you know of a route to Manila without passing through Sta. Ana?" I asked him.

"Of course!" he replied, his pride stung.

"Let's go," I told him, climbing into the cab and biting back all my nasty words.

The sun was scorching but the cab was air-conditioned-cool, and oddly enough, instead of my temper flaring at the reality of my rash action, I was slowly seduced by the sights of the trip. We passed through a startling variety of streets and thoroughfares, alleys and one-way streets. I saw glittering buildings, sad little shanties, a bewildering riot of colors at an area that seemed to specialize in fresh flowers, numerous schools and universities, dozens of love motels advertising their 3-hour S.A.W. (Stay-A-While) rates (which used to be called "short time" in my youth), roadside restos piled high with viands and eaters, statues of angry heroes with bolos and flags, dilapidated churches, dormant sex clubs, old movie houses and establishments with ancient signages announcing exotic wares and services.

And all the people. I've gotten used to seeing a certain general set of people: business folk, clients, suppliers, mallgoers, transit-users. That day, I couldn't help feeling frustrated that I didn't bring my camera. I saw more people laughing and smiling than I usually do in the space of a month - crossing the streets, carrying tools of their trade, conversing with fellow students, eating meals with their feet raised, swinging in trees, pushing carts, crowding jeeps, waving from rooftops, buying and selling and walking and running and singing. It was like I walked into an series of art directed movie sets. Colors shone in the bright sunlight and I looked every part the stranger.

I had little sense of the passage of time, I was so entraced by the things I saw, filing them in my memory for future reference - already, stories were suggesting themselves, intimating plotlines and characters. Before I knew it, I was in Manila, in front of the main post office.

When the Americans rebuilt the City of Manila after the war, the architect in charge took inspiration from the building styles used in Washington, D.C. So our main post office would fit right in there, with its towering columns and sprawling girth. The entire building was of a certain rose hues, infused with a touch of terra cotta. There was a huge fountain that fronted it, spewing water at an unreasonable rate, as if trying to refute the rule of the sun.

I remember thinking, before walking in, that the edifice reminded me of a cathedral - an observation further ratifed upon entry because, as is customary from time to time, there was a power outage. The entire interior was pitch black, a pervasive gloom only broken by feeble candlelight. These candles were set inside the numerous teller windows, as one would place candles of devotion in church alcoves for the the saints. I could sense people around me, but every shadow moved in silence, like mute wisps that only suggested a physical form. In keeping with the cathedral theme, barely anyone spoke, and those that did seemed to speak from a distance, the space around us playing tricks of acoustics, rendering banal conversation into something seemingly divine.

I found the alcove where my coupons were sold (with some difficulty, I can tell you, given the fact that I barely allowed my eyes to get used to the darker environment). But the lady there told me that I had to wait an hour for the official person who could stamp my coupons. An hour.

I left the building and crossed the fountain and found myself in a park. The vast area was shaded by trees with generous foliage and peppered with inviting benches and wooden swings. In the heart of it was a police outpost, which made me feel somewhat secure (this is Manila, after all, and the laws of magic realism state that oddness can occur at any time). I found a place that sold food and ordered a sandwich and a drink, and while I ate the oily mess I thought about how little I knew about the cities around me. When a pair of children started dancing under the trees I felt the urge to shout "Wait, wait. Stop that and wait for me to get my camera!". But I took a mental picture instead and later, perhaps, I will develop it with words.

The coupons cost P100 each and I bought several so I wouldn't have to repeat my sudden excursion in the future (though by this time, I don't think I would mind all that much). Each of the four manuscripts cost just over P200 to mail. So each one cost me a total of P300 (with the coupon for reply safely sealed within the thick envelopes).

On my way back to the office, we cut through the City of Mandaluyong, with its own distinct character (like an old person being forced to adopt to change, and both succeeding and failing in heartbreaking ways).

Then it was off to the City of Makati for my late afternoon client meeting. Unlike all the other cities I visited that day, Makati is polished and modern and swanky. All the people think they're beautiful and dress in ways they think are beautiful. I met my client at a resto that charged P200 for a small plate of pansit (Filipino noodles with toppings) - outrageous compared to my P22.50 sandwich earlier that day.

Then it was back to city of my comfort, my home with wife and child. When I finally arrived, I noticed my digital camera sitting on top of my computer table. I wanted to say "oh, the things I've seen" but took a shower and fell asleep instead.

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