Home for good
Hot, tropical air gushed through the doors as we disembarked from our plane in Manila. After a brief sojourn with my friend in Singapore, I was no stranger to intense heat anymore. But the air here is different for it was also a welcoming kind. It’s a breath of fresh air, Manila’s hot air, because after three years studying and working in Europe and enduring December’s frost, this time I am finally home for good to begin anew. Humidity signals a fresh start.
My friend made her way through immigration and baggage claim on auto-pilot. Shuttling between Singapore and Manila every month, she navigated the airport terminal with ease while I maneuvered around hesitantly. I took out my mobile phone, wondering: Is there Wi-Fi? She gave me a look that meant: “We’re in Manila, of course not.” For the record, there was Wi-Fi, but it wasn’t working, which was not in the least a source of surprise. After all, we were in Manila, where one could not expect something to work just because it was there.
My mom was waiting for us at the exit. The drive back to our flat was long and arduous because of the traffic. My mom was getting impatient, honking and overtaking; without sleep and food, my friend was getting impatient. But I did not mind progressing slowly because we drove past familiar places: the art gallery I used to work at, the school I attended high school at, so many roads where nothing has changed, and then so many areas where everything has changed.
Construction is at a peak in Manila. A megapolis of nearly 15 million, there is no other way but up: New buildings are spewed out from the ground with speed and in big numbers wherever there is space; the overcrowded streets seem even more densely packed. Recent metrics indicate a strong, growing economy, and while it will take some time to feel it trickle down to the common Joe, one cannot deny that so much activity, so much movement, is abounding. The Philippines’ land area is 300,000 square kilometers, the same as Italy. There are 60 million Italians; we are a country of 101 million, and so many want to move to Manila.
Consumerism is also on overdrive: Everyone is buying something and going somewhere. I went to a mall on my second day back to get some bathroom necessities and there was barely any space to walk. Because of the holidays, everyone had to give everybody else a token. Bargain, bargain, bargain, buy in bulk. Edsa, the one main thoroughfare that cuts through Manila north to south, has a capacity for “1,800 public buses but there are over 8,000 at any given time,” states a senator. The three train lines are packed to the brim; one endures a long queue to get into the station, then another queue to buy a ticket, then yet another queue to get to the platform where he or she has to wait for at least three trains to pass before being able to squeeze into an already overflowing one during rush hour. There is no concept of personal space in this city. The guard shouts through his megaphone, “Let alighting passengers out first before getting in.” No one listens. Those of us who have the option to drive are aware that a car is not necessarily a luxury because it will take more than an hour to travel all but 15 kilometers on average on a normal day.
Celebrations were subdued toward the end of 2013 because a strong earthquake was shortly followed by a record-breaking typhoon only a month before Christmas. The churches, too, seem to have record-breaking attendance. Religion and superstition go hand in hand as people pray for a kinder 2014. Maybe 13 is indeed an unlucky number; that’s why so many natural calamities befell us in the year just gone.
In the only Catholic country in Southeast Asia, one’s faith in the Lord weighs supreme. Who has to worry about proper disposal of rubbish so the sewage systems don’t clog so the risk of flooding is lessened, who has to worry about not building structures on a fault line and reinforcing those already in peril’s way? Why the government, of course, not the people. For the people, our duty is first to pray and everything else is a leap of faith. If something goes wrong, thank heavens there’s always the government to blame.
But I love Manila to bits. My homecoming coincided with a family friend visiting from overseas, and I was tasked to be instrumental in taking her around. Playing the tourist in my home city reaffirmed what all Manileños know: that one has to seek Manila’s charm in order to find it. We have no city center, no Angkor Wat or Borobudur, no definitive list of must-sees. Instead, one must explore the various districts and dig for those hole-in-the-wall gems that must be experienced first-hand because Manila is more emotive than aesthetic.
Indeed, what makes Manila great cannot be seen but felt. The beauty of this city is not materialized through historical structures because we have none, but rather it is felt by the city’s allure of vibrancy, freedom, and a welcoming atmosphere that makes it home to anyone who visits.
And those who come here and make this city home see through the intense heat, ill-planned construction, excessive consumerism, clogged transport links, and misplaced faith and say that truly, in spite of the many things we can put a finger on, it is more fun in the Philippines.
I cannot eloquently answer the many people who ask why I chose to come back to Manila after living for three years in a First World country where “the quality of life is so much better.” My only explanation is that my heart has always been here and that it is home. In fact, if I could be permitted to answer a question with a question, I would say, “How can I come back when I never really left?”
Fatima Avila, 27, returned to Manila for good just before Christmas, after three years of studying and working in the United Kingdom. “I am currently figuring out what I want to do now that I’m back,” she says.
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