Tuesday, April 18, 2006

There's The Rub / 10 things to love about being in the Philippines

There's The Rub
10 things to love about being in the Philippines
By Conrado de Quiros

First posted 00:30am (Mla time) April 18, 2006

THE IDEA for this column cropped up in my head late last week. I had pretty much forgotten how great Metro Manila felt without the crush of cars and jeepneys, beggars and businessmen, saints and sinners spilling out into its streets every day, until I drove around last Holy Thursday and Good Friday. Most Metro Manilans had left for their hometowns, if not for Boracay and Baguio City, and the taste of Metro Manila, near-emptied of its mechanical and human contents, was not unlike wine. Driving through deserted roads gave me a glimpse into how an Arab must feel driving through desert roads. It brought back memories of the time when I used to ride the JD and DM buses from Katipunan Road in Quezon City to Quiapo in Manila (that took only 15 minutes), which now seems like ancient history even to me.

The air was redolent as much of summer ease as of Lenten penitence, which made me think of some of the things to love about living in this country. My list breezed past 10, but columns are not hospitable to more than 10 of the things to love about being in the Philippines -- which does not include writing columns. So 10 it is:

One, Baguio and Boracay. Baguio is the old summer capital, Boracay the new one. Mountain or sea, take your pick. Though Baguio has been greatly ravaged by modernity -- enough to make you sing (appropriately, Baguio being home to “folk” music) Joni Mitchell’s line, “They paved paradise to put up a parking lot” -- it still retains its charm, at least for me, aided in no small way by a rush of memories. I haven’t been there in some time and find myself now and then longing for it.

Boracay, well, it makes a good claim to being the next best thing to paradise on Earth, though some beaches in Bohol province, notably on Panglao Island, can give it a run for its money. Personally, I find the addition of nightlife a boon and not a bane: I’m not one of those who like to rough it up in the company only of the moon and stars. Beer and good company help to make the sand sparkle in the night. In any case, I don’t much like dipping into the water, I just like walking on beaches. But that’s another story.

If you like the beach, you’ll probably like the people who inhabit it, too, especially the ones in Boracay. But I’ll stop there lest I get into trouble.

Two, fruits. My all-time favorite is mangoes, which have no peer in the world. Of course, you’ll find people from other Asian and Latin American countries boasting about their own mangoes, but I’ve tasted a variety of mangoes from all over the world, and I can say with reasonable certainty that none of them compares to ours. Our mangoes are the absolute best.

As well indeed as many of our other fruits, which teem all over the place at this time of year. I’ve always associated summer with fruits, the trees, which grew in abundance where I lived when I was a kid -- and this was supposed to be a city! -- groaning with the weight of them. The idea of buying fruits was inconceivable then. Fruits were not something you bought, they were something you picked. But that, too, now seems like ancient history.

Three, hometowns. The desolation of Metro Manila during Holy Week drove home the point that most residents of Metro Manila come from somewhere else in the country. “Taga saan ka?” [Where are you from?] is a normal question you ask of a Metro Manilan, which suggests that those whose antecedents for several generations date back to any part of the metropolis are the minority, probably a small minority. My own hometown is Naga City, though I was born in Manila. It is where I spent my boyhood and adolescence and learned my first language, which is Bicol. It is where I go to charge my psychic batteries. I barely know anybody there anymore from childhood, but the place itself holds a raging volcano of memories for me, which sends electrical surges through my soul. Hometowns give you a sense of bearing in a world -- especially so this country -- seemingly drifting in space, bound for nowhere.

Four, the sun. That, of course, is also something to hate about living in this country when the heat becomes especially ferocious at this time of year. But you live in a cold place, and truly you’ll learn to love the sun. I’ve been in Europe in the bitter cold a couple of times and was instantly cured of Christmas-y notions of winter wonderlands. Once when sunlight seeped through the gray skies in the Oxford area where I was visiting some years ago, I swear I thought I would see the natives fall on their knees and pray. The exultation was universal, the sighs of gratefulness spontaneous and audible.

I don’t hate it that we only have two seasons in this country, the rainy and the dry, which in these days of El Niño and La Niña weather disruptions are not so easy to demarcate anymore. I like it that we do, if only because of the teeming street children Metro Manila in particular is home to. Can you imagine them lying in the pavement in the bitter cold? I have these images of Russians being picked up in the morning like litter after freezing to death from lying in the snow roaring drunk. Of course, the fact that we do have children sleeping on the pavement while Mike Arroyo barely inhabits princely suites in Las Vegas to watch boxing champion Manny Paquiao fight is something to hate about living in this country. But I leave that for the nonce.

Five, summer. It revives memories of Connie Francis belting out “V-a-c-a-t-i-o-n!” The kids are home from school, though “home,” for those who have teenage sons in particular, is hugely debatable. Over the last several weeks, I’ve barely seen the shadow of my 17-year-old son. Well, I guess let them be. It’s the time of their life, the best years of their life, the happiest years of their life. It won’t come again.

SIX, DVD and software. It used to be you went to the United States to buy DVDs, software and books. Well, today you still go to the United States (and elsewhere) to buy books. I still remember the row upon row of bargain books in The Strand in New York, a cavernous bookshop where you need a ladder to get to the tomes on the top shelves. Many of them were still new and hardbound. The DVDs, well, the last time I got them in the United States was in 2001, shortly before 9/11, and I counted myself lucky to have bought them on sale.

Today, you do not go to the United States to buy DVDs; your folks in the United States come here to buy DVDs. Or importune you to send them some, such as your messenger is intrepid enough to risk problems at Immigration. Indeed, today your problem is not how to lay your hands on DVDs, or on good titles, your problem is how to organize the tons of them, including absolute classics, that are piling up in your not very big house. I have solved that problem by buying them without the case and storing them in canisters. I still have to solve the problem of how to find the time to watch them.

Those who feel like berating me for listing the DVDs from the Quiapo district in Manila among the things that make this country livable might first wish to examine whether the Windows they're using to boot their PCs and the software they're using to write their furious letters with are original or licensed.

Seven, Quiapo. Before my mother suffered a stroke some years ago, which much debilitated her mind if not her body, she used to go to Quiapo to do her marketing. She was born and raised in Manila. The fact that many markets, wet or super, were near did little to dissuade her from making the long trip by jeepney. She was already past her 80s then, but she was strong and strong-willed. Nothing beats Quiapo for the real deal, she said.

She was right. It was so then, it is so now. It's the one place where you get the best bang for the buck, in more ways than one.

It's a place, too, where you find tolerance amid difference, pattern amid incongruity, order amid chaos. It's the place where the Quiapo church stands just across the street from the mosque. It's the place where the sounds of prayer mingle with the cries of barkers, where bankers thrive with sellers of snake oil, where the benefits promised by public officials vie with the efficacious results promised by the peddlers of "pampalaglag" [abortifacients]. It's grimy, noisy and pushy. It's honest, colorful and sublime.

Eight, the countryside. That is to say, any place outside Metro Manila, not necessarily your hometown. The food is cheaper and the smiles are broader. In past years, I used to travel a lot across the country to talk in graduations and forums but I have kept to Manila of late because of pressing concerns. I like visiting the Visayas for many reasons, not the least of which is that it is accessible by air and sea. But more than that, the Spaniards were right: It's the land of the "pintados" [tattooed people], of a people given to wine and song. I won't mention what goes along with wine and song lest I get into trouble as well.

Of course, it's not always easy to keep an Amorsolo image of the countryside amid the want and strife to be found there. But you'd be a fool to imagine that's all you'll find in the countryside. Especially in summer, when the sun dangles from a cloudless sky and shimmers across undulating field and heaving sea. It's always a little brighter in the countryside in summer, which pulls you to it like, well, an Amorsolo painting.

Nine, "kakanin," "halo-halo. When I was a kid, you found the "kakanin" (pudding, rice cakes, etc.) plentifully in the market. But if you were too lazy to take the short walk there, there were the itinerant vendors who hawked the stuff in the streets. I recall that at one point one of our teachers in high school, an American Jesuit, who had been insisting that we speak slowly, audibly and clearly in class, pointed triumphantly to one of those itinerant vendors and cried, "That is how you should recite!" You could hear the voice of the kid from a distance shouting "Baduya" (banana drenched in batter) in the tones of an angel. Kakanin's gain, amateur hour's loss.

Two things I've always associated with summer: "tuli" [circumcision] and "halo-halo" [iced mix of fruits and other ingredients]. The first came from announcements in newspapers and signs in streets that said almost cryptically, "Summertime: Tuli!" To this day, I find myself saying that phrase every time Gershwin's famous ode to summertime is sung. The second is halo-halo, a concoction that makes you see and feel the haze of summer. Not least because it truly makes you full and sleepy. I know most of the ingredients there -- beans of all shapes and sizes -- are gout-inducing, but I figure that these days in particular there are more things to give you pain in this country than gout.

Ten, the people. I still recall something a friend of mine, an American banker, told me before he left for another post. He had pretty much gone around the world, he said, but he found few people as genuinely warm and solicitous as Filipinos. Of course, in excessive form, he said, Filipinos also tended to be familiar and intrusive, as when new acquaintances went on to pry into his personal life. But even that he found to be largely harmless, if not well-meaning. In the United States, he said, waiters and sales clerks greeted you, "Have a good day," but there was little joy or conviction in their eyes. Here, people said "Ingat" ["Take care"], and meant it.

I did think of writing as well "10 things to hate about being in the Philippines." But either that goes well past 10 or it can be reduced to just one, take your pick.

But that's quite another story. It's Easter, I'll leave the tragedies for tomorrow.

Editor's Note: Published on page A12 of the April 18, 2006 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

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