I was at the gym this afternoon when right in the middle of my pull up routines strong winds and heavy rain, without much of an announcement, lashed outside. It was a beautiful sight from the glass wall of the building I was in that time. I stopped what I was doing and moved closer to the glass wall so that I could have a full view of Shaw Boulevard and the area of Shangrila Plaza. Everything was at a standstill, rendered static by the beauty of one of the first strong thunderstorms of the monsoon season.

For a brief moment, my thoughts and the melancholy that they inspire were arrested, as they were obviously dwarfed by the force of nature raging outside.

On elegance

Seated in the end-most seat at the back part of the auditorium of Insituto Cervantes in Manila, I had a clearer, albeit the small cinema in the Instituto was unlighted as in all other self-respecting cinemas, glimpses of people who were seated in front of me. I went there earlier, catching a 5:30 pm LRT1 ride from Gil Puyat to United Nations amid a heavy afternoon downpour.

On Wednesday of last week, I got hold of an announcement, printed in the Business Mirror, on the Spanish Embassy’s annual El Dia Espanol (Day of the Spanish Language). Piqued by the activities lined up by the Instituto, I braved the impending rain which later fell into an itinerant early monsoon rainfall. I arrived at the Instituto soaked and a bit disorientated because of drippings from umbrellas of other less careful commuters and the usual slaughter house-like scene inside these crammed coaches.

The perceived very intellectual atmosphere in the Instituto, several meters away from the UN Avenue train station, gave me a warm welcoming.

Several groups of Filipinos, mostly students and young professionals and some tourist-looking Caucasians were conversing with each other in Spanish and English and occasional Tagalog in a small cafe a few steps from the metal-detecting machine. I do not speak Spanish neither do I understand the language, which is just too bad.

At first, I thought the place was reeking with heat coming from the usual European (specifically Parisian) coffee shop debates on semiotic, critique of post-structuralism or the discussion on metaphor and the primacy of irony over other devices in chapter 4 of Aristotle’s Poetics. Overhearing their small chit-chats, my impressions fell flat on their faces and mine, and the supposed intellectual atmosphere collapsed into heaps of commonplace subjects of small talks. The topics of their discussion were of unlofty kind, mostly mundane concerns about the heralding of a new brand of politics that comes with the election of Mr. Aquino to the highest seat in the land, the recovery of the national economy vis-a-vis the ‘rigged’ figures proudly claimed by the Arroyo administration, the sorry state of Philippine education system, and some students from, I gathered, St Benilde, who were exchanging banalities about the rigor and excitement of their college life.

I sipped my coffee fast and escaped immediately from the very heavy atmosphere in the lobby. I ran to the small auditorium and chose the most isolated location because I wanted to enjoy my movie, Galatasaray – Depor. I half suspected it was going to be in Spanish (of course!) and that subtitles, if there were any, would be in Spanish. I was right.

I trusted that motion picture is an art of universal value that transcends cultural boundaries. And that for somebody who studied and teaches communication, my education prepared me to tackle kinesics head on, understanding the story based on the actions, the varying tones of the characters’ voices in delivering their lines, and the subtleties of their interactions. Or so I thought.

Until a group of people, the same group I tried to escape from in the cafeteria came in and joined in communal experience of film-viewing. One of them, the most brazen, blurted “Ay, walang English subtitles.” I do not see why people in this country have the penchant of stating, and stating out loud, what is obvious.

But the fact that these people have the audacity to advertise their stupidity like a badge of honor is even more horrifying.

On the other end of the spectrum, some people, whom I assume to be impeccably conversant in Spanish, made it sure that people like me who understand no Spanish word except pronto, puerta, or puta knew where to locate ourselves in the greater scheme of things. These people who have studied Spanish, the younger, over-eager undergraduate, especially, who were part of that group in question, laughed twice as hard and as loudly as one would normally laugh when faced with a funny scene or line in the film.

Their stylized way of laughing signified the void that separates the Spanish literate and the non-literate, which was fine with me. They were more than willing to announce their extensive knowledge of the Spanish language, complete with understanding of the subtle idioms and irony.

But this is an act that leaves a bad aftertaste. It’s inelegant.

Floody Friday

Monsoon in Vietnam supposed to have started around June and would’ve peaked in September. However, because of climate change and other environmental disturbances man has brought about, it did not anymore surprise me when rain came apouring without any sign of abetting starting in Monday of this week.

I failed to attend my class this afternoon because the way to my school was heavily flooded. Ba Dinh district in Hanoi is so susceptible to sudden rise in flood water because its low level with respect to other places in the city. Aside from that, it has numerous lakes that serve as catch basins for excess rainwater, and since raining has not stopped since Monday, all its small lakes overflowed submerging the entire place; and unfortunately for me, my university is located in the center of the district.

Seeing that the narrow street to my school was flooded, and not wanting to miss class, I tried to find alternative route. But this caused me more harm than good. Trying to avoid getting wet and wading in flood water, my search for a dry street leading to my school ended in vain, instead I got caught in a frenzy of motorists trying their best to cross the knee-deep, murky flood water. When I reached Daewoo Hotel, several hundred meters from my school, the roller chain of my bike get caught between the gears. Without any lever to remove the stuck chain it was just impossible. Then two boys approached me and volunteered to fix my bike for me. Business as usual, it’s just amazing to think that in adversities like this people will always think of earning money. They charged me 20,000 dongs, I said it was too much. Then I bargained for 10,000. They mistook me for a Singaporean and told me that I must be rich. I took my wallet, and concluded the awkward situation by offering them 15,000 dongs. Case closed.

I wasn’t able to attend class. I got wet. I got lost.

I’m scared I might have contracted leptospirosis because I took off my shoes when the flood was already capable of drowning me. I will not bear thinking that when people ask about the cause of my death, then the answer will be: “Ah, it’s because of the urine of rats in flood water. What a pity.”

I love rain but too much rain is just too much.

Life is a bus ride

One of the criteria I use to gauge my knowledge of a new city where I live is for me to ride the public transport. In Hanoi, although my bicycle is quite reliable, going to places that are as far as five kilometers is very inconvenient, that means that I have to pedal for a total of 10 kilometers under the sun or wear a raincoat (which I really hate) during the monsoon season.

So two weeks ago, I began using Hanoi’s bus system more out of curiosity than the need to travel longer distances for my part time job. I could just pay for a faster and more convenient xe om. The buses here are not as well maintained as the ones in Singapore neither are they as reliable, for the company here in Hanoi, as far as I know, does not issue a time table for the arrival and departure of any of its buses. The passengers are left to do a more cerebral task of guessing game or making in full use their Algebra lessons: If bus A leaves Bach Mai station traveling at 10 km an hour (based on the passenger’s experience) at a distance of 6 kilometers, what time will bus B arrive considering that it travels half as slow as bus A? What time will bus C arrive if bus B hit the side mirror of Bus A?

But what Hanoi Bus lacks in reliability, speed, and comfort is compensated with its character. An experience of a Southeast Asian rush hour inside a Hanoian bus is a stimulation of all the five senses: The smell of sweat, body odor, and perfume bought from China are enough to reach one’s olfactory potential. After the ride you’ll realize that your sense of smell has approached that of a dog’s in terms of sniffing and identifying odor.

The sense of touch, owing to the incredibly packed passenger density of around 20 persons a square meter, is also equally stimulated, and it’s not just something sensual in case you happen to sit (or more usually) stand beside a perfect human specimen, one can have a feel of all possible skin textures, skin temperature, and amount of skin moisture. Moreover, the buses’ air conditioning units might as well not exist since during rush hour because they become overwhelmed by the number of passengers gasping for breath and available space. Being inside the bus is a first hand experience of how it is inside a pressure cooker. It softens the skin, though.

The sense of taste, although the least used of the five senses once inside the bus, is never left behind, for unlike other public transport like the LRT/MRT in Manila or the MRT in Singapore, or that one in KL, it is perfectly okay to eat while riding a bus in Hanoi, that is, if you are a foreigner. The conductor of the bus will reprimand you, of course, but a foreigner passenger can simply act dumb, as if not hearing what the angry gray-uniformed man say, and the angrier stares of the other passengers whose white shirt he has splattered with ketchup from a hamburger bought from Lotteria while waiting for the bus in Kim Lien.

Anyone who grew up listening to FM stations broadcast in English will have a shock of his life when he hears a Vietnamese DJ delivers his spiel in a combination of English and Tieng Viet. Not only is the male DJ cursed with an abnormally shrill voice but also an above average speaking speed. In addition, some words are awkwardly pronounced: hero is /he-ro/ instead of the more usual /hi-ro/. However, the songs, most of them ballad are surprisingly melodious. Ballads are played during rush hour possibly because they cool down the head of any angry commuters whose anger is only overpowered by the domineering gray-uniformed bus conductor.

Let’s briefly talk about that gray-uniformed man. He is a short guy, around half my height (I’m exaggerating, of course), who shouts “Di lai gan!” all the time. It means that the passengers must compress themselves in the center of the bus to give way to new passengers. He is very skilled at remembering faces for despite the number of persons who goes in and out, he still manages to exact payment from each of them, faultlessly. Furthermore, even though the bus is totally packed beyond capacity, he can maneuver himself from the back to the front of the bus easily to collect the 3000 dongs fare. He seems to be the only person in the bus who defies the physical law of impenetrability: no two objects can occupy the same space all at the same time. He is entirely capable of that.

The window shields of the buses do not discriminate based on the passengers Snellen’s Chart scores. Those with 20/20 vision will have an equally hard time seeing their destination as the ones with 200/20 or 2000/20 vision since the windows are endowed with incredibly dusty glasses made even worse by rain last summer or several summers ago creating a stained glass effect minus the sparkling rainbow colors, for here, gray is the only shade that is available.

Inside the bus, lovers are having a time of their lives. They cuddle, embrace, kiss, run their hands on parts of each other’s body that are not usually touched except during very intimate moments, in private venues, definitely not inside a crowded bus; but yes these acts occur inside the bus. So one’s sense of sight can feast at these romantic views making those who chose to be solitary regret the day they chose to be alone. And that includes me.

Each day, as I get more experienced and more knowledgeable in finding my way around this beautiful city by bus I also begin to understand the psyche of the people living in this foreign place. Being inside the bus is also like seeing another face of Vietnam. It may not be so beautiful, not so grand, not so clean, but one thing is for sure: It is real. Riding bus is a life in itself.