Wednesday, February 08, 2006


Something lingers

I am still carrying the Philippines around with me, like I'm still there. Somehow I'm not yet arrived in America, even as I was racing to leave crowded Manila. I simply cannot shake my constant looking about, my wide-eyed vigilance, the small tension in my gut. I don't miss the cacophany of urban sounds, the Jeepneys, tricycles, and buses. I miss the Filipinos: their great warmth and humor and common sense, the indefatible and creative spirit, a deep sense of grace and dignity.

You'd think I could make the transition more easily. The ground in Michigan is covered with snow, not palm leaves, the air is bitingly cold, not syrupy warm, and nothing hangs from the trees except bare, brown-black branches, and the occasional dangling sneaker, thrown up there by the local college kids. A week ago, I could look up and see clumbs of bananas, mangoes, or coconuts in the trees.

You'd think I would quickly re-embrace the lavish spaces in America. A week ago, there were no trim houses, yards neatly landscaped. Instead, every square meter in Manila, and even in the provinces, in Bauan, were Spanish style raised houses, concrete, soot-covered buildings, shanties of aluminimum and boards, and tiny, open-front sari-sori stores, all competing for space.

My eyes could never rest in the cities of the Philippines. I learned to stop looking at the window, or risk visual and emotional overload. There are no patterns of housing or building, no consistency at all. The neighborhoods have no integrity or distinctiveness anymore. Apparently, as people spilled from the provinces to find jobs, they crammed in anywhere they could.

I saw this: Between two post-war buildings in disrepair, in the space of six linear feet, someone has concocted a dwelling of rusted corrogated aluminum sheets, and rotted plywood. The wood is hammered in such a way as to make a little door, and a window. Behind the dwelling, the owner has strung a rope, to dry newly washed shirts and pants and handerchiefs, which hang neatly, by category.

Out front of the 'house' is an umbrella table holding neat rows of bottled orange and mango juice and Cokes. Under the table is a neat mound of pale green coconuts, also for sale. On a skimpy patio chair sits a shirtless old man, who dozes, his shoeless young grandson about three squatting at the edge of a traffic-filled street. In one moment he's filling coconut shells with bottle caps; the next moment he's scampering up a low wall.

I notice that children who live at the margins are constantly in motion; their highly physical play of climbing, running, darting, looks disorganized and random, without much joy or purpose.

As the boy strays toward the road in his play, a huge Jeepney in front of our car honks him back, and he moves back smoothly just in time, without looking up. The boy, nor his grandfather, seem the least panicked that he was inches from death.

I cannot so easily file away these kind of images, now that I'm back. I have trouble forcing them into the folder labeled 'Travel-Philippines' nor the psychic containers which are marked 'interesting' or 'unusual' or even, 'thank your lucky stars.'

The Philippines isn't a Cambodia, or Vietnam, or Laos or Thailand, or even an Indonesia. Those countries are re-building themselves from ruin, carefully placing hotels and restaurants and Internet cafes in sight of national treasures, like beautiful temples and gardens and palaces from antiquity. As some of the intelligensia told me, the Philippines doesn't yet have a clear idea yet about its own identity, apart from the antiquity left behind by previous colonizers, and its borrowed Western stores and fast-food stations.

And--this is the disquieting thought that keeps me back there-- until it does, the Philippines is like the little boy and the old man: just surviving, too perilously close to self-destruction.

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