Saturday, January 29, 2005
12:03 AM |
Manila in My Vitamin C-Soaked Mind
In Manila, the first thing one notices is how everything seems to be extra-fast. My immediate comparison, of course, is always the laid-back existence of Dumaguete, where "slow" becomes the byword for everyday things.
Last week, on a Thursday, all of Dumaguete seemed so far behind me, and from above -- and through my airplane window -- just before the Cebu Pacific plane prepared to dip for the landing, I could already smell the bustle of bigger city life. Manila from the sky looked like a jigsaw puzzle, all edges and all splotches. And for a moment, I thought: "Here we go again."
This was my nth trip to the capital, and each one of them an experience in themselves. This excited me, and scared me. Nothing unusual, this mishmash of expectations; it was part of the regular emotional rush for one already so used to country life: it was part joy, and part fear. Did I bring enough money, for example, to get through Manila in one piece? This was, after all, a place where a good dinner in a good restaurant costs a small fortune, equivalent to a thousand meals in a comparable restaurant down my block in Dumaguete. And then also the horror stories each of us promdis
(a hateful word) have come to believe as the facts of life in this City of Man. The hold-ups. The mobs. The Tondo denizens. Each time I think of traveling to this city, I cannot help but feel that I can live anywhere else
in the world, except Manila. "I've lived in the most expensive city in the face of this earth," I have told many friends when I am in the mood of dispensing my Tokyo tales, "and loved it-and lived through it beautifully. But Manila is a challenge I don't particularly like to undertake."
Which may be why, to many of my friends' amazement, I have eschewed all opportunities to live and work there. There were those two offers from big ad agencies. There was that offer to work in a Makati bank, simply because the President read something I wrote for the Philippine Daily Inquirer
, and was interested. There was that embassy job that promised P40,000 a month, tax-free. I may be shortsighted, and perhaps utterly without ambition, but I chose Dumaguete. Because my bones said I must. I remember Cheyenne, an old high school friend, telling me: "Ian, in this city, you will flower. You belong here. You will get rich here with your talents."
A part of me wants to believe that, but how do you say to people that I am allergic to all that... rush? And Manila is all rush. And rush in an environment so familiar, and yet so strangely alienating all at the same time.
One time, about two years ago, I was in Manila for several literary functions: to get my Palanca Award for a story I wrote, to attend a big book fair, and to show up for the National Book Awards where the first book I'd made -- an anthology I edited -- was nominated for a prize (and lost to the graceful Erlinda Panlilio). That was a heady first day. I had lunch with poets Wendell Capili and Marne Kilates in a fine restaurant somewhere in Tomas Morato, a stone's throw away from Diether Ocampo's house. Later we proceeded to the UMPIL convention where I met several writers I've come to regard as close friends, and came face to face with several others I've only corresponded with, and with whom I was finally able to do the process of putting faces to familiar names. Much later, after attending the National Book Awards and the book fair, I took the MRT (and assorted rides later) from Mandaluyong to Manila, to my hostel in Malate, and then there it was, the regular symptom to this Manila allergy: a burning fever, suddenly rising somewhere in the crowded confines of the Edsa station. I knew what it was: a spell that comes and goes within 24 hours. In Edsa Station, I saw the darkness creeping in around my brows. I told myself to hold on, till I could finally collapse on my hostel bed. The next day, I cancelled everything (including a dinner with Lito Zulueta and J. Neil C. Garcia), and waited for the bug to go.
It must be Manila's city heat. It must be the everywhereness of people. It must be the trudging existence of commuting and breathing-in exhaust. I don't know why my body breaks down whenever I am in Manila. And it is not because I find Manila rather uninteresting. On the contrary, I love the bursting life, the constant promise of happenings all over the place. The cultural gamut is impressive, and the list of things to do and attend is very long. Once, attending the Catholic Mass Media Awards in the Ateneo de Manila campus, where I was up against Nestor U. Torre of the Philippine Daily Inquirer
(and hobnobbed with Korina Sanchez and Jamie Rivera), I went with some friends (the poets Naya Valdellon, Mark Anthony Cayanan, and Allan Pastrana, and the fictionist Darryl Jane Delgado) to 70's Bistro, a hip bar in Anonas, Quezon City, where Cynthia Alexander was playing. I wore my barong
, straight into a crowd all dressed down to the very definition of casual -- and I didn't mind at all my sartorial anachronism. Later, we went to Malate and drank in some of great nasty jokes in a stand-up comedy club (and karaoke bar) where the queens seemed to be the bitchy royalty about town. Talk about variety of life. And oh, the cinemas in Manila! The choices, the choices....
This time around, for my first trip out of Dumaguete for the year, I've made my pact with my body, told it to go easy with Manila. I armed myself to the teeth with all the barest essentials. Namely, vitamins. And dietary supplements. A lot of them. Huge vitamin C and calcium and vitamin E tablets, and doses of Centrum. (I tried Pharmaton once, but soon gave up on it: it made me hungry, and it made me want to go to the toilet every other hour or so.) The regimen worked its magic, I guess: the only bodily discomfort I had was a severe sore throat, the result of a bad decision to eat chocolate crepe exquisitely named Fantastic Pinay in Café Breton, in Greenbelt. (Since Halloween last year -- when I helped myself to an overdose of white chocolate while visiting my father's grave -- I've discovered that I can no longer take in chocolate of any form. My throat would suddenly become painful and sandpapery, sometimes even resulting in a fever; this is an unfortunate thing, because chocolates are my only vices.)
The next day, early in the morning of January 14 -- and armed with an extra dosage of vitamin C and generic antibiotics to counteract the growing discomfort in my throat -- I took the taxi to Intramuros, to the National Commission for Culture and the Arts building where the Philippine Center for International PEN's Annual Convention was to be held. I belonged in the panel to discuss "Literature in a Hurry," with writers Gerardo Z. Torres, Mila Aguilar, Shirley Lua, and writing mentors Susan Lara and Marjorie Evasco. I was to talk about the state of Philippine literature in the age of the Internet. (My invitation to speak in the PEN Convention sprang from the fact that I happen to be webmaster of the biggest Philippine literature site there is in the Internet). It wasn't easy. There was the matter of speaking to writers -- old and young -- whom I have read and respected. There was the matter of two National Artists for Literature -- F. Sionil Jose and Alejandro Roces -- listening to every word I say. There was the matter of our Yahoogroups files suddenly becoming inaccessible because Yahoo! just happened to break down right that very hour we were starting our talk.
But, thank God, I went through the experience without too much hitches. Someone in the audience told me I had "great diction."
And then later, the fictionist Kit Kwe -- one of the most amazing young writers I know -- picked me up from Intramuros, and we drove all the way to Greenbelt where we had a great P500 dinner at a place called Soul Food. Kit had pasta, I had some steak. And green tea. With Tessa Magdamo and Eric Joven, we invaded Powerbooks where I bought Maria LM Fres-Felix's new short story collection, the brilliant Making Straight Circles
And then the next day, I flew home.
 This is Where You Bite the Sandwich
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