Dear Manila

The air is cool and calm.

The only sound that breaks the stillness is the one of sleep.

Outside is a blanket of darkness. The skies have that hazy shade, a mix of night and dawn–somewhere between yesterday and tomorrow. I spy a glimpse of the moon’s better half from its hiding. 

A faint lace of steam tickles the air from my coffee cup, seductively slow, briefly pausing to tease. The warm aroma is playfully enticing and comforting. 

I should be writing a script on Leyte for a travel show.

Leyte – that Visayan province blessed with the most breathtaking, jaw-dropping, cliché adjective-inducing vistas of nature and, at the same time, cursed with being the eye of every storm and typhoon’s wrath. Where kilometers and hours of rice paddies, pineapple plantations, mountains, and coconut trees feel like infinity–and a comatose nature-lover’s wet dream. The place where food is wrapped in banana leaves or in a coconut shell and best enjoyed with your hands; where everything is like a walk-in-the-park away, or for some, a leisure bike ride. Longer than that would still bring tears of joy to the regular trekker. The place where the language sounds like melodic cajoling and terms of endearment, even when they’re cussing and bickering. The place where, just like nearly every other province in the Philippines, each town has a party to celebrate anything and everything–from the sun to the harvest moon to the swarming bees–and sum up all those into one giant fiesta where people paint their bodies and dance on the streets—all day long. 

Leyte – where I discovered my roots and my family’s buried stories, where complete strangers recognised my name and my mother’s and her mother’s and others in a family tree that has long been chopped down and forgotten. In Leyte, there is a city named Ormoc and somewhere in this city are hectares and hectares of land and forests that, according to locals, belongs to my family (or once did). The mayor of this city, upon meeting me, asked me about the mystery behind this. I simply said, with a shrug, that I was just as mystified. It is, after all, my first time to set foot on this island. 

And as we (the crew and I) return to the car to take the long drive to the next city, several kilometres of farmlands framed by coconut trees whip past me. Every nanosecond glimpse of lush vegetation equates to a question mark. Could that be the one, could that be ours? My gaze is met by a man standing on the side of the road, waiting to cross and for our car to fly past, one hand on a rope tied to a massive gray carabao. And in that split second I see my grandfather’s face staring back at me, his soft eyes wide and round against the sunlight, his palm wiping the beads of sweat from his forehead. His shoulders are broad and square and he stands straight and tall, the horned beast at his side looking meek and small.  

And I still remember his stories. Of a farm, far away from my home, with fields where I could run till exhaustion and trees I could climb and hide from my mother. Where I could finally learn to ride a bike, or a horse, or–on a good day–a carabao. This was that wonderful place I would try to depict in classroom drawings—green grassy plains guarded by two majestic mountains, a yellow smiling sun rising (or setting) in between. This was where he was for the rest of the year, until December when he would travel all the way to Manila on a boat, to remind me to leave a cup of steaming hot chocolate and ripe mangoes for Santa Claus on Christmas eve (coincidentally his favourite) and wake me up at the break of dawn to have a look at what the white bearded, fat bellied old man left for me under the tree (and the empty mug of hot chocolate on the table). Then one day, several months away from Christmas, he appeared on our doorstep with a mountain of bags and suitcases and boxes at his feet. One hand clutched a cage at his side, the nose of a furry brown guinea pig peeking between the metal grills. This was his last present to me from Ormoc. He never left our home, and Manila, since that day—until his death a decade later. 

And that’s just about the most I know of this place that my family once called home. Memories that aren’t even my own, fragments of images pieced from my grandfather’s wistful musings in moments of bittersweet nostalgia. So, I reckon, I did speak the truth when I answered the city mayor. Surreal –would be the word to start describing the wave of emotions and thoughts washing over me as I stood in the middle of a night market, a slice of roast pork proudly being handed to me, encircled by a large group of eager and friendly folk from the city tourism office, a large camera watching every second. And surreal would describe the answer to the words, “Welcome Home.” 

I did not want to leave. I wanted to stay behind, tell the team to go on ahead and leave without me, return to Manila and explain to our executive producers that I didn’t reach the plane, that I would write the script faster and better from where I was—on a bamboo cottage floating on the calm waters of Lake Danao, nibbling on fresh fern we call pa-ko, or that piece of heaven wrapped in banana leaves, made of finely ground sticky rice and cacao called mo-ron. (Both have the emphasis on the second syllable)

Tell them that I am in a better place. That I am, finally, home.  

But that did not happen. I write this, in the first hours of the day, in the same city I’ve called home since I was born. And I write this, instead of the long required script about a place I fell in love with and didn’t want to leave behind. Not because I had nothing to say or no idea where to start. I write this because, for the life of me, I wonder why I have no fucking clue why I keep coming home to you. I write this because the questions keep getting louder and have flooded my mind to confused distraction. 

The roar of a jeepney angrily breaks the silence. As if on cue, a cock crows and the sound pierces the air. Somewhere on the other side of my apartment walls, a metal pan falls on the floor, the loud clang resonates and permeates through the thick concrete. A few seconds later, the pained shriek of an infant, followed by the angry yells exchanged by adults. A dog barks in alarm, heralding a chorus of barking and howls echoing throughout the streets until godknowswhere. 

Hello, today. Hello, Manila.

Actually, the question is not why do I come home to you. The question is, why do I stay?

From navigating your streets, regardless of distance, to boarding or alighting the railway system is a constant process of negotiation and a daily battle for many. I need not elaborate on the details of dodging both vehicular and human traffic and the uniformed officer waiting at the corner whom we prefer to call bayawak (crocs), or how we look away when we pass an outstretched hand or the murky waters of a certain river and beach our great-grandparents once waded in.  

You are, my dear city–in every meaning of the word–difficult. A friend described, in one of our never-ending discussions about the pains of this place, that the only way to survive and somehow appreciate Manila is to grab it by the horns—and just ride it. 

And perhaps, somewhere amidst the clouds of smog and homicidal traffic and desensitized poverty, if one manages to slice through the tension, one gets a glimpse of your heart and soul, beating ever so strongly. You are struggling, you are fighting, and maybe you’ve grown exhausted, butI know, I really do—you are ALIVE. 

And this is why your people stay. This is why we stay. This is why, even as I tread seamlessly through the ascetic streets of a foreign city—one that smells ever so seductively of success and stability and the MONEY you can never seem to give me no matter how hard I try—I miss you. That while I murmur in relief and pleasure that I am far, far away from the chaos and dangers of your streets, which I could never march on with the same liberation as a woman as I do in this first world city; a sudden montage of brightly-coloured jeepneys, the kaleidoscopic flurry of blinking parols (Christmas lanterns), and that fat wide-eyed smiling orange-striped bee waving a fried chicken drumstick flashes through my mind. There is a strong pang in my chest; how the fuck can I not miss you. When I hop on a bus that I know would be arriving at this precise minute, or when I sit back comfortably on the leather seats of a pandan-fragrant taxi, why do I suddenly have this yearning to hear at any given moment, the words “Kailangan bang i-memorize yaaaaaan?”  blaring through the radio speakers? And during those rare occurrences that public transportation might suffer technical malfunction and delay some ten-twenty minutes, I look at this sea of non-smiling faces suddenly wrinkled with expression, that of anger and impatience, pounding on their touchscreens—and my eyes lock with another whose expression  mirrors mine: amusement. We both know it. We come from the same place: yours. We both laugh. 

Manila, the drumming of your pulse beats loud and strong and reaches until the opposite side of the world. We hear your call, from the deepest corners or highest peak we might be standing on. And we always come home to you, one way or another and for various reasons. You are difficult, you are dangerous, you are exhausting. But you are different—no way on earth is there a city exactly like you. You have character (too much sometimes), you are witty and clever, and your craze is addictive. You are fun and exciting and mysterious rolled into one evening. You keep me on the edge of my seat, especially when you are quiet, and for that I am never bored. And each day, you remind me why loneliness does not exist and give me the answers to the question “Why?” without me asking. 

So you see, Manila, how could I not love you? 

Yours, 

Me 

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