I left Iloilo in April of last year. A year and a half later the same sights greeted me upon arriving at the airport and on my way to the city — vast rice fields, pothole-dotted roads, old non air-conditioned buses plying the highway from the city to Tapaz in Capiz, and the assaulting warm, humid breeze blowing from Guimaras Strait. The city does not show any major change as well, except for some newly opened restaurants and cafes, the city has a feeling of a framed air-dried leaves frozen in time. All of a sudden, to my eyes Iloilo becomes a small village that will not be able to give me the anonymity necessary for writing. Definitely unlike Manila whose size I used to complain a lot about but eventually learned to appreciate and almost fall in love with.
My two younger siblings who are both studying in the same public university in the city and I went out and ate at the same local fastfood I, my older sister, and my brother next to me used to eat when we were still students four years ago. I saw Melanie, the cashier. She is the cashier seven years ago when I first ate at the place. A lot of the waitresses have already left except Melanie whose very presence reminds me of a familiar fixture in all Chinese businesses, the ubiquitous golden cat whose right paw is in perpetual motion. She and I never had any chance to talk except when she’s getting my order (if you consider that as ‘talking to each other’) but it’s as if she has given me access to her life and known her like the taste of my favorite chicken a la king or palabok, both specialties of the chain she’s working for. Melanie is like Iloilo City, unchanging, dependable, and uncomplicated.
After eating, I decided to visit the gym where I used to work out. What used to be drab concrete walls are now painted bright yellow. They’ve added additional equipment for developing the abdominals, but all in all, everything in the gym remains unchanged. The people flexing and pumping iron, except for some new and younger faces, are the same people I worked out with before. I left after twenty-minutes when the entire floor was enveloped in pungent smoke coming from the other side of the room where somebody is grilling squid. There was no exhaust fan and I had no intention to smell like smoked squid. But I promise to start working out again soon.
Both change and constancy require a strong heart to face. While it is true that change can be traumatic and harrowing, constancy is as formidable a concept to comprehend. It has issues of its own. How come change has not arrived in this place during the time of my absence? What have the people been doing? Before I slept in my bed that lacked mattress early this morning, I almost went too metaphysical as to ask, have I actually left the place? It’s as if everything else was a dream, and this small box of a room where I slept soundly is the only truth I am capable of acknowledging and understanding.