Train rides

I was on my way to Mandaluyong when upon going up MRT Cubao platform I was greeted by lines of resigned and helpless-looking commuters snaking like venomous reptiles ready to strangle and stab with their fangs the authorities that allowed the state of public transport to worsen like this.

I have been tempted so many times to get a car. I thought that with the current two monthly amortizations I am paying for my mortgages and another monthly payment for a car loan, I can still comfortably live within what is allowed by my monthly earnings. But I am not getting a car soon.

Getting one feels immoral amid the current vehicle traffic in Metro Manila.

There was a time before when a mobile phone was a status symbol. I remember our school clinic administrator holding her elephantine analog phone for everyone to see and
marvel at. Never did I see her without her phone clutched by either her hands that are overwhelmed by a network of blue green veins.

Young and naive as I was then to the ways of the world, I knew it was the pinnacle of bad taste although I was unable to articulate it in the terms of taste. I saw it however in the purview of morality. It was laughable how she strutted her stuff in her public school teacher’s uniform, her sense of the ridiculous fully abandoning her, in front of impressionable public high school students who barely had anything for breakfast lining up during Monday flag ceremonies. It was scandalous (exactly the term I used at fourteen).

Eventually, in the latter part of my secondary school, mobile phones acquired the status of being semi-democratized. I got hold of mine when I reached college, a Nokia 5110i which was a hand-me-down from my sister who at that time had graduated to a smaller, lighter, and hipper Nokia 3210. It was a necessity because I was away from home. And hardly was a Nokia 5110i still a hot item then.

I had to text discreetly and had to excuse myself whenever my mother called.

From being a status symbol, a mobile phone has become finally available to everyone. From the time it was introduced to the time it became available to everyone, it took more than a decade. For smartphones, a little shorter than that.

In the Philippines, the democratization of cars took much longer, but it is bound to come. In fact, it seems that it has arrived. Manila is now seeing the inconvenience caused by this democratization. This is amid the infrastructures and mindset that still view cars as a commodity only the members of the elite class can afford. While the emerging middle class (both middle middle and lower middle) are avoiding in droves the inconvenience of braving badly maintained public conveyances, they take to the roads their cars that are a product of car loans they easily availed of because of lax government policies and favorable tax schemes that benefit car manufacturers.

Metro Manila is deteriorating each day, getting more unlivable by the day, a city so harsh and unforgiving to its inhabitants. But we are as much to blame. Our desire for comfort and our sense of entitlement to the same comfort that used to be only the rich can afford created this problem. We have magnified the discomfort for others and for ourselves. We feel we deserve the seat inside an air-conditoned car that artificially isolates us from the city, this amid getting caught for three hours in a gridlock on C5, Katipunan, or Edsa.

The trains prove a better choice. On it my travel time from Cubao to Mandaluyong took 12 minutes, of course with some stalling, some aggressive competition for space, some groping. Unless the young and ambitious middles class take to the trains and demand for a better service, these cars, for most the conspicuous symbols of success, will completely transform this city into hell. We’ll all burn here.

These cars are a manifestation of faulty meaning-making and of skewed semiotics.

Stops and interruptions

I was holding a thick paperback of Borges’s collection of non-fictions on a train going to Boni, reading portions of some short articles when the ride is not too bumpy straining my eyes that have gone more fragile as the days go by, or during every stop. There is something about these short stops and interruptions that affects how I read a piece of literature. Because I very rarely find time to stay in one place for longer than an hour, except during my classes in grad school that stretch for three hours, I consider my time spent on these train coaches my only reading time. I take no heed of the population density inside these trains, have gone oblivious to the human stench, and have learned to keep my ears shut from trivial conversations that interest me no more.

To me, reading is an act of aggression, a war waged against a repressive environment that does its best to keep one from that intimate contact with the written language. I find it very ironic that while I teach reading Literature, I have always been at a lack of time to let the ideas I read simmer, reflect on their implications to my understanding, and in worst cases, read. And so, I have to set aside the limitations posed by my economics, academics, and the personal to somehow still find time to sit on a bench, or stand while one hand is holding a cold metal railing, and the other a book, and read as if books are as illicit as a cap of E. Assuming that the unlawfulness of books gives its reader a sense of power (diabolical or divine, it does not matter).

The stops and the interruptions at first functioned as wide, perilous voids I needed to cross in order to get  to the opposite end that promises understanding and multi-layered meanings, but, as in all other things that began as a debility, getting used to these stops and interruptions allowed me to use them to my advantage. Each of these I spend looking at the horizon, or at close-ups of people who are, like me, packed like sardines inside a nearly dilapidated train coach. These long shots and close-ups are observations, mental accounts of humanity in various contexts that are reflected, nuanced, critiqued, pitied, adored, laughed at, pilloried, worshipped, lambasted, but generally, celebrated in Literature, allowing me to get so close to what it’s like being human.

There is no such thing as a ‘perfect reading experience’, only experiences that give a book, that is, if it is truly great, as many intimations as the souls drinking it.

On why this day is a beautiful day

I almost got murdered inside a rickety MRT.  That man’s asphyxiating odour (or vapor) that oozed from his over-exposed armpit terrorized me and other commuters. We were simply defenseless.

Classes just started yesterday but I am already looking forward to the dawning of March.

Lunch was great: yellowish broccoli and leathery beef.

Sleep and her unforgiving cohorts visited me every thirty minutes while I was in the middle of my lectures.

The weather felt like in the center of a steamy Brazilian rain forest. And I hate the rain (or the dark nimbus clouds) it kept me from going anywhere.

But the sun was equally detestable.

Today’s my first M.A. class in Anthropology. I wonder what led me to enroll myself in this rather esoteric subject when I could have taken a more relevant seminar course.

But despite these I still consider this a beautiful day:

…because according to my Sunday School song then–this is the day that the Lord has made.

We need to be brazenly frank sometimes

I believe it will do our soul some good if we spew every once in a while acrid remarks at daft people and on the nonsensical things they do, which and whom we often do not say anything about or to, probably because of callousness or sloth or both on our part, and, therefore by default, we tolerate and accept. Most of these we let go unscathed because we all fear of being retaliated with words that are illogical by all means but which we all fear nonetheless because the law of logic does not, sadly, apply in a third-world metropolis like Manila.

Like one time on the MRT, a man, and I swear to any supernatural being, intentionally pushed me. Naively, I asked “Nanunulak po ba kayo?” (Did you just push me?). His response, although I half-expected it, was, “Kung ayaw mong masagi, eh di mag-taxi ka!” (If you don’t want to be pushed around, do not take the train, take a cab!). Once this line of thinking is taken by people I am arguing with, I knew it was already useless pursuing my case, so I avoided his wrathful gaze, positioned my back on him, acted as if I did not hear his long and angry speech on the correct way of riding the train, and read a paperback I was holding that time.

I needed not look at his face because I know it was worse than maudlin. His eyes were red, watery, and bulging, like that of a dynamited fish, probably he just came out of his work tired and sleepy, but this fact didn’t bother me. I wanted nothing but to save my skin from him. The people in the train were looking at the man who was furious because somebody like me has the gall to complain about being rudely and maliciously pushed around inside a cramped train, and me who was futilely trying to camouflage myself and hide my shame.

I tried to dissipate the tension by feigning enlightenment while reading a book by Jose Saramago. But it seemed this even made him more furious. I felt like smacking his face with the paperback, but it was too soft for the job. When I alighted at Shaw station, as if his litany was not enough, he ran after me and asked me the quintessential Tagalog way of provoking a fight: “Ano’ng problema mo, pre?” (What’s you problem, man?)

I said, “Tinulak mo ako! Pu*ang ina mo… .” (You pushed me. You s*nofab*tch!).

Kidding. No, I did not have the audacity to say this.

I lacked time to gather my thoughts and to think of a clever reply in Tagalog, so I made do with my stuttering, “Kung di mo ako tinulak, eh di hindi!” (If you didn’t, then fine.). And I left.

Filipinos have this very odd way of defining public spaces. Public is equated to being lawless, a no-man’s land. I am not a sociologist, so I know I am only making intuitive assumptions here.

Just because a place is crowded does not give one an excuse to abandon whatever decency left in him and commence acting like an animal. Being a regular commuter of public transport in the metro, I witness on a daily basis this disregard for basic proper conduct of self in public places and conveyances by Manilenos.  However, what appalls me is the idea that I can do nothing, that I am only a transient bystander, that telling to their faces they are plain assholes is not my rightful duty. I guess, this same powerlessness is the same feeling most people in this country feel.

This afternoon, at the gym where I regularly sweat off after my work every five in the afternoon, this plump guy (I surmise using the word ‘plump’ to describe him is my way of making him a subject of my rather dry humor) either played really loud music on his mobile (whose earphones he might have left somewhere) or talked to his ‘clients’ over his other phone, or simultaneously doing these two irritating activities to the chagrin of everyone in the gym.

The blaring music I could tolerate, but his Rockefellerian or Ayala-ish tone of speaking loudly laced with a vague Southern Californian or Mid-Western accent while talking to his clients was something that aghasted me. I almost threw toward his direction a 45-pound plate. It was as if the entire of Accenture rests on this man’s chubby shoulders and adipose-ridden abdomen.

I did nothing but kept quiet the whole time and brazenfacedly gave him a peek of my bulging pectoral muscles and well-defined abs. And well, using the word ‘plump’ to describe him in this post.

500th post

Last night, after a tiring strings of travels using a combination all imaginable modes of land transportation in a modern metropolis — tricycle, MRT, LRT, jeepney, bus, and several hundred meters by foot from Shaw in Mandaluyong to Katipunan in Quezon City for my class in Ateneo to my part time teaching job in Makati — I arrived home nearly exhausting all my reserved energy, using up all my arsenal of reserved hope that I thought to be inexhaustible.

After an endless litany that went to nowhere, a monologue that lacked clarity and coherence, whose absence of a thesis statement boggled even me, and which despite it being endless, it ended because I got no energy to continue. And I was at a lost for the right words to describe what I felt. My brain came to a sudden halt, ceased to work, and surrendered everything to the comforts of a deep sleep.

This morning while attempting to put my thoughts to writing, I was surprised to learn that this one I am writing now is my 500th post. I’ve posted in this blog 500 articles! Some articles that made sense, some that didn’t, some that reflected nothing but my narcissistic tendencies as a writer and a person, some that shamelessly exposed my darkest insecurities, and some that defy rational categorization.

And some more to come.

And it just felt good posting this 500th one.

Sedating Sedaris

The unforgivably corny title of this article is inspired by this anthology of essays written by a humorist (I do not know if it is appropriate to call him this way) and radio jockey David Sedaris.

I was at National Bookstore in Robinsons Pioneer when I chanced upon this oddly titled book When You are Engulfed in Flame and its equally enigmatic cover of the painting Skull With Cigarette (1885) by Van Gogh. The book that went beyond my ceiling for paperback by an author I’ve never heard before is rather pricey. It’s worth mentioning that I did not feel bad when I gave the cashier 400 pesos. So far I’ve never felt bugged by my conscience whenever I buy books not as much as when I buy new shoes or splurge on gourmet food.

The essays contained in this book have no common bond that will give a reader a sense of the whole after wolfing the entire book. But this randomness of the topics made this book a tour de force. The anecdotes in the life of David Sedaris as he moved back and forth Raleigh, his hometown in North Carolina, New York City, Paris, Normandy, and Tokyo are reeking with his funny observations and witty remarks about himself, the people, and life in general.

Not a few times did I find myself laughing inside the MRT on my way to work while reading the book. It’s not the kind of laughter that you force on yourself, it’s the bwahaha kind of laughing that makes you to forget that you are squeezing yourself inside a cramp train filled with passengers who smell like a concoction of garlic, sweat, and some unrecognizable expensive perfumes overpowered by a lot of cheap colognes liberally splattered to the unknowing commuters.


His masterful and truthful way of describing his characters and his mental commentaries while doing this will send you laughing to the point of crying and embarrassing yourself in case you decide to read this in a public venue. Of his essays, his characters who left the most indelible impact on me is Helen, a retiree who was his neighbor in his small apartment in New York he was renting with his boyfriend. She was a complex woman whose words are as interesting as the streets of the Big Apple.

The real-life characters portrayed in his stories seemed too fictional to be true because of their poignancy. They are the same people you meet along the hallway of the high rise you are staying, probably your officemates, or that lady in the concierge of the mall that sells expensive goods you regularly frequent. People you ignore and dismiss as boring but unwittingly became subjects of interesting stories David Sedaris shared in the book.

You will discover in the last essay about his stay in Tokyo to quit smoking why this anthology is entitled When You are Engulfed in Flame, something that an English-speaking tourist visiting Asia always notices.

A(H1N1) a.k.a. Swine Flu does not scare me

Rumor has it that a person staying in the condominium building beside mine is infected with the flu.

My housemate told me that the call center he is working for, located across EDSA, has been cleaned and according to him ‘sterilized’ after an undisclosed number of employees caught the dreaded disease. His use of the word sterilized brought up an image of a building soaked in a beaker of isopropyl alcohol. I kept myself from laughing, of course.

My mother constantly sends me SMSs giving me warnings  about swine flu and advises me to buy a box of face masks to cover my mouth and nose as a protection whenever I go out or ride the MRT, to hoard bottles of vitamin C, to bring umbrella all the time, and to avoid crowded places. I think wearing a face mask is overreacting; stocking on my supply of ascorbic acid is economically counter-productive unless of course I will be selling them in the event of a shortage; I constantly forget to bring my umbrella or I lose them all the time; and I am staying in Manila so avoiding crowded places is next to impossible.


It may be because of my youth and my recklessness. Or my fatalism.  Or that I am a Filipino and a poor one (to emphasize my point). A(H1N1) a.k.a. Swine Flu fails to bring shiver down my spine. I’m not at all scared of it. I am not at all scared to die. When you have not proved much, when your voice is barely heard, when your existence is just a speck in the universe of mankind,  dying ceases to be chilling; it stops to frighten. It becomes a reality concretized to an almost physical sense. Death almost reaches a point that you can imagine holding it with your palm, embracing it even.

I haven’t really given death much thought for a long time. If you are a citizen of a third world country, death is stripped with all romanticism and poetry. In the Philippines, for example, death is too prosaic. You see death everyday in nightly news programs, read it in tabloids, or hear it from accounts of people around. Death becomes a staple part of life that it becomes boring. It’s almost a joke whenever I hear of officials in the government warning the public about swine flu when dengue fever claims thousands of lives each year or that more children die from malnutrition in Manila alone than all the combined mortality cases resulting from A(H1N1) in the world.

A joke. That I believe is how most Filipinos, including myself, see this pandemic.

This afternoon while riding a bus from Makati, I overheard two persons, apparently both are working for a call center, talking about the flu. The woman told her fellow passengers in English-with-a-twang that it is discouraged to have flu vaccines. I was prompted to stop my reading to listen to her line of reasoning. According to her this is so because it is in the culture of Filipinos to be complacent as regards sickness whenever they have vaccination, so vaccination will only make them forget about hand washing, covering the mouth when they cough or sneeze, and all other measures to prevent the flue, that is, if I followed her thinking accurately.  She then added that this explains why the Health Department recommends hand washing rather than vaccination.

For one, vaccination is not discouraged, neither is it encouraged. Two, the cost of the vaccine may be prohibitive for a minimum wage earner disabling them to avail of it. Three, the DOH does not recommend hand washing over vaccination rather a combination of both.

While writing this, the flu virus could have already entered my lungs and I’m already dying.

But so what?

So what not because I don’t really care but so what because there is nothing much that I can do.

My youth, my recklessness, my fatalism, my being a poor Filipino all coming into play.