Endless bus rides

I  used to hate riding buses. But I have, though I do not know how to describe this feeling exactly, fallen for them and have accorded them much respect now. I take them every day to Bulacan, Cavite, Pampanga, to Batangas soon, and maybe Tarlac.

Their seats upholstered in faux leather, plastic, or sometimes shabby rubberized textile, provide me something the bed in my room has not given me for a long time — sleep.

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I want…

I want to eat peanut butter, just peanut butter. I want to have a straight eight-hour sleep, not three, four, or five. I want to ride a tapir, not a tricycle, a jeepney, or a train. I want to stay home for a whole day and finish everything in my reading list. I want to swim some more lapses. I want my mother’s laswa soaking in hot Dinorado rice. I want to go to Pampanga and be with my sister, I miss her doting kindness. I want to ride a plane, now. I want to see a giraffe kicking a hyena in the face. I want to fill this page with non-sense. I want to splatter Jollibee spaghetti on the first person I meet wearing white. I want to insert my wet middle finger in the electric outlet behind me. I want to shout at the people living in the room facing ours and tell them how gay the color of their curtains is. I want to glutton on a gallon of stale vanilla ice cream. I want to drink the water from tap downstairs and wait if I contract cholera or die from typhoid. I want to seal the room shut, turn off the air-con and find out how long it will take before my lungs collapse because of asphyxia. I want to have a fishbowl, without a fish, because I can’t have a fish. I want to have a birdcage, just the birdcage, I cannot have a bird inside. But if I can, I want to have a myna and teach it how to eloquently blurt all the expletives I know.

I want to take a shower. I want to eat, I am hungry. I want to wash all my dirty pants by hand. I want to confess to the owner of the stray wi-fi signal named Belkin_e0d37a that I am having a free ride and that I am willing to pay him for the time I, unintentionally, used his signal to publish several of the posts here. I want to delete my Facebook account. I want to apologize to my readers for me having written this far and for them having read this extent.

I want to extract all my molar teeth using a pair of pliers. I want to shout at the top of my lungs that I am          . I want to think that I am being read. I want to think that what I have to say matters. I want to.

I want to simply continue writing this. I want to clean the house. I want to water the plant I have always wanted to have, but never had. I want to see my vibrantly verdant bougainvillea (it would have been this species) crawl and colonize the house until the living room resembles like a Peruvian sarcophagus. I want to know why I am entertaining these thoughts and have mustered enough bitter gall to publish them.

I want to think that by writing these things I want but cannot have or do I am finally acknowledging that some things go nowhere. And that other things, the nonsensical ones especially, get to be written down here.

Recto Day

We consider Sunday ‘Recto Day’. My sister who stays in Pampanga comes here to Manila on a fairly regular basis, after every two weeks, to buy stuff for her ukay-ukay business that is rapidly making headway. My younger brother and I would accompany to carry her tote bag for her while she carries on her back a Jansport-ful of Guccis, Louis Vuittons, DKNYs, Pradas, Dolce and Gabbanas and when she happens to be lucky, some pairs Manolo Blahnik stilettos which according to her customers are incomparably beautiful but painfully punishing to their well-pedicured toenails.

Coming from Mandaluyong, I take the MRT to Taft then transfer to the LRT1 line going to Monumento. I alight at D. Jose station and meet her at Chowking in the corner facing the long lines of run-down cinemas on Recto and stalls selling pirated DVDs on Avenida. My brother, who is coming from Makati takes the route from Gil Puyat/Buendia.

After a glass of cold coffee gulaman called nai cha, which my sister loves, and a heavy breakfast for me, we begin treading the street going to Carriedo passing one by one her suki who give her great discounts, after patient bargaining. Need I say? From Avenida, we either cross the other side of the street or brave the crowded street market to Quiapo church, dodging fortune tellers, toy vendors, and young children selling Sampaguita or leis made from colorful Everlastings. Experience tells us that ukay-ukay supplies in these areas are being replenished every two weeks, usually on a Sunday.

I eagerly look forward to this weekend activity because this is a time for the three of us to catch up on each other’s life and talk about the latest gossips involving our parents in Mindanao and younger siblings who are both studying in a university in Iloilo. We talk a lot about work, our individual love stories, and plans for the future. I notice we often talk about almost the same things but we do not seem to get tired of them because they make us feel secure; these talks remind us that despite the complications in our lives, complications that we may have a hard time sharing even to each other, still simple things like family remain constant.

Of course, other than this, we also get to experience the bustle of old Manila that is hard to come by in newer cities like Mandaluyong or Quezon City. It is a good thing that the three of us never really like malls that function as the only source of cultural immersion in these cities bordering Manila. We all agree these drab buildings are suffocating and magnify boredom several hundred times.

But Manila, the old Manila, that is, is different. It’s alive. These more modern cities that comprise Metro Manila may rival Manila in terms of business opportunities but they all pale in comparison to the culture and the brand of cosmopolitanism the capital has. The noise of Ortigas in Pasig, or even the sleek Ayala Avenue in Makati are irritating, and to borrow Emile Durkheim’s terminology–alienating, but Manila redefines the idea of noise, and to anyone who has had a taste of it, it’s called music.

And what better way to get immersed in this soothing diaphanous cacophony of sounds but on the streets of Recto.

We end the eventful day by saying good byes to each other and sending our sister off to a bus to Pampanga but not before buying a box of freshly-baked diced mungo or ube hopia from Bakers’ Fair.

Under the hot Kapampangan sun

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Day 1

We arrived in Angeles City just after lunch time after an hour and a half of fairly comfortable bus ride from Manila. From the bus station in Dau in Mabalacat, Pampanga, we took a tricycle to Angeles and got off on Malabanias Street, a narrow street traversing a quiet residential area, parallel Fields Avenue, the center of party life in the city.

The Australian researcher I am assisting, Paul, looked a bit surprised when I told him that the 10-minte ride from the bus terminal to Perimeter Avenue cost us 100 pesos. For a small city like Angeles, a hundred-peso tricycle ride was too much considering that a driver normally earns 300 in day less fuel and ‘boundary’, an amount the driver pays to the owner of the tricycle as a sort of a rent since most drivers do not own the tricycle they drive. I thought this amount was a hustler’s price, meaning we could have gotten a better deal after we get accustomed to the place, but it turned out that tourists were generally charged higher, and some of the locals we asked around told us that this was the regular fare going from one end of Fields Avenue to its other end. A conspiracy, I thought.

We found a cheap but nice inn on the junction of Perimeter Avenue and Malabanias Street called Charlie’s, but this was after haggling with three other hotels in the area, comparing their charges while we’re both carrying our luggage, both hungry, tired, and sweaty. Paul gave me 15 minutes to take a bath, freshen up, and change. When I was done, he invited me to have lunch in the diner downstairs; I was too hungry to discuss with him anything, and so we ate in silence.

In anthropological research, silence is as important as the actual process of interviewing. It is through silence that a researcher gets to reflect and digest what he has seen, observed, and understood after a tiring day of immersing himself in the lives of his subject. In a way, I was also trying to understand Paul and how he as a western anthropologist treats his subject. I knew I would have an ample time in the next few days to know him and make some generalizations about him.

Angeles City is like the sun-drenched Los Angeles only that this city roughly 85 kilometers away from Manila looks likes a retirement village for aging American GIs who cannot think of better way to spend their retirement pay but to dingy and seedy bars that line Fields Avenue. There were no stars disguised in their saucers-like sunglasses sipping coffee at Starbucks, and paparazzi were nowhere to be found either, just girls in their teens or late-20s coming out or going to work in their jeans or skirts, wearing high-heeled pumps and their faces blushing like cherries under the hot Kapampangan sun.

Around five that afternoon, we met the first girl, Chelsea and in the evening, Rose. They’re both freelance ACM (Asian Cam Model) girls or Cyber for the locals. They’ll be the subjects of our study for the next three days.

Fusion of pain and faith in the Philippines

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On the surface, Holy Week in the Philippines is a bizarre admixture of Catholicism, individuals’ eccentricities, and sadism-masochism tendencies. Under the scorching heat of the sun, half-naked men roamed the streets of Mabalacat, Pampanga flogging themselves until they bleed exposing the inner layer of their skin. It was first time I witnessed this tradition; having lived my life in southern Philippines, there was nothing like this in my place, except that I recall when we were young how our father gave us a few soft lashings using a bitter vine believed to keep evil spirits away.

Here in Pampanga, men create wounds on their backs by making small cuts using razor blades then repeatedly lash their back using a device made of bamboo that promotes profuse bleeding. This act, as well as crucifixion is also practiced by some women.

Each barangay (a unit of local government) in Pampanga has their own makeshift structure that acted like a station of the cross where bands of men inflicting pain on themselves pass to pray and ask forgiveness for the sins they committed during the year. This act which they call panata, roughly translated to a ‘vow’ is done by the namamanata or the person doing the act for a specified number of years, usually spanning several decades, for reasons ranging from thanksgiving for the blessing received from heavens, realization of a wish, or expression of faith.

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What struck me, however, is the magnitude of faith that has been brought to an almost maniacal height. I opted not to go to San Fernando, another municipality of Pampanga that was once featured in the National Geographic’s ‘Taboo’ episode. Here actual crucifixion was being done to not less than 30 devotees, or fanatics, the choice of the better word is left to the reader of this blog. The blood and gore I saw in the self-flogging of the namamanata in Mabalacat is already too much to bear.

Faith in the most Christian nation (the word ‘Christian’ is an absolute adjective so that means it does not lend itself to comparison and qualification; please forgive this blunder) in Asia is not considered as just one of the components in the life of an ordinary Filipino. For some, it is the only thing they got that allows them to live amid all the poverty and despicable living conditions. The pain from the nails passing through one’s hands and feet are nothing compared to the struggles an ordinary Filipino endured during the rest of the year. Pain, as a part of the Filipino conception of himself, has been wired in his national psyche that Filipinos do not anymore get stupefied when they see blood, skinned back from lashing, and crucified bodies.

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The tradition lives on.

To a certain extent, events during the Holy Week in the Philippines have become spectacles in themselves where most local government, in the aim to increase revenues from tourism, even have marketing strategies to lure local and foreign tourists that are amazed and amused with the display of faith, tradition, almost supernatural ability to endure pain, and the extent a human being has to go through to show his faith.

I do not want to sound judgmental here, for when faith assumes the subject of a discussion, I relinquish whatever position I have, probably because I have nothing close to it to speak of. Culture is bound to be absurd from the perspective of an outsider, but somehow finding myself midway: an alien and a member of the greater Filipino culture all at the same time, I can’t help myself from feeling dazed, awed, traumatized to a certain extent, and a bit proud.

Washing dirty clothes on a Christmas Eve

Five and a half hours before Christmas. This same time last year, we were together as one family in South Cotabato in the Philippines: my parents and my five other siblings, two are already working (my sister and I), my two brothers who were still studying in college, and my two sisters (one in high school and our youngest in her second grade in primary school).

This Christmas, however, is different. I’m here in Vietnam studying. My sister and my younger brother in Pampanga are now working for a BPO company, my two other siblings who are in Iloilo decided not to go home, and our parent in Mindanao with our youngest sister.

I called my eldest sister this afternoon when I came back from school after she sent me an sms that she missed me. She is the most emotional in the family, the one who easily cried when teased, the one who had to go back home several times when she left for college because she couldn’t bear to be alone, the one I am closest with. She told me that our younger brother has to work from seven this evening until tomorrow morning, therefore celebrating his Christmas while taking calls.

I’ll call my mother later for I know that by this time all the lines are busy.

As for me, I’ll just let this pass, probably sleep a little later tonight and send emails to friends I’ve met and temporarily forgotten. I have piles of dirty clothes filling up two laundry baskets. I’ll wash them after I am finished writing this post.

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Christmas is a communal concept. If all of a sudden everyone decides to stop celebrating Christmas then it’ll stop to exist. Like all other things we choose to forget, it will silently just die a natural death.

All the happy memories I have of my childhood were during Christmas eves. They are the most colorful, the most difficult to forget, the most important. However, tonight, a Christmas eve spent washing dirty clothes, is not very bad. This Christmas eve will add to my memories of past Christmas eves when I was with my family eating during the Noche Buena, or trying to avoid sleep because I didn’t want to think about being away from them on that special night. And now soaking my clothes, adding detergent, and hanging them later after finishing a cycle just in time before the clock strikes midnight.

Probably next Christmas eve will be different. Probably I’ll spend it with my family in Mindanao. Probably I’ll do something less tiring than washing two baskets of soiled clothes.

Merry Christmas everyone.