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Love in transit

Train rides are my first love. I have never set foot on a subway train, or those long-distance engines that burrow through tunnels carved into mountains, and only in my dreams do I take the Shinkansen from Hokkaido to the mainland. I have never even boarded a PNR train. I am naive, the object of my fondness hardly known to me.

But you know first loves.

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The only basis for my affection is a couple of years’ worth of taking light rail lines—the MRT for two years now, the LRT for four before that—but there is something to be said for feeling like you’re moving faster than the rest of the world and not knowing any better; for getting on empty trains very early in the morning or very late at night, the air-conditioner working so well your eyeglasses fog the moment you step off the coach; for completing your reading the exact same time the train pulls up at your stop; and for standing alone in a sea of people, watching cities blur past.

As soon as college took off, it hit me that gone are the days of lazing around the LRT station, sitting on the floor with friends, waiting, sometimes for up to an hour, for a train with empty seats to arrive. For one, I take the MRT alone most of the time now. I no longer make a big deal out of getting squashed against strangers. And I no longer have the luxury of time, my home being an hour and a half away from campus. Waiting for skip trains, I quickly learned, had become a habit of the past.

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My daily love story usually starts this way: angry mutterings rending the thick 7 a.m. air, adding to the dry 30-something-degree heat; guards literally roping people off the doors of the train to give way to alighting passengers; well-dressed ladies yelling “Don’t push me!” and someone hissing, “Animals!”

Even so, most people just tsk-tsk and cluck their way into the stuffy coach, clutching bag to chest, careful not to ruin (vainly) perfectly pressed work clothes… And over the years, I have come to discover that their—our—relative silence is not an act of patience, but of surrender.

This is not a new scene, and this is only the beginning.

We, the mass of humanity with the single goal of not being late to our commitments, would still have to stay in an aging train, pressed against one another and constantly shuffling to our sides to make room for new passengers. It is not unusual to see heated arguments—mostly about space—break out. Some curse and shout at one another, inviting the rest of us, bored out of our minds and sweating under our clothes, to look on and entertain ourselves with the sad humor of our morning commute. Some do not even address one another at all, only making sneering comments under their breath. But fights dissipate. We move on. We have our own belongings to mind, our own space to keep.

Speaking of belongings, some years ago, just as the LRT train I had been riding with my friend Faustina was pulling up into our stop, a woman erupted into screams. She had discovered she was missing her phone. “Nasaan yung cell phone ko?” she kept asking no one in particular.

Nobody said a word. Nobody could. Lost things are lost, and boy, do I know the feeling.

I, too, have lost phones—twice!—to nimble fingers in public transportation. The second time found me trudging to the police desk of MRT-3 Quezon Avenue (where, curiously, there was no police officer), and approaching the guards on duty, fighting hard to keep my voice from breaking.

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I had been walking on the footbridge over the station with my earphones plugged in when I noticed that my music had stopped. My bag’s smaller pocket was open… and my earphones were connected to nothing. My phone had disappeared. I never even noticed anyone around me.

Later, at the desk, I would realize I was not there to seek help, because I knew my Lenovo was irretrievable. I only needed to tell someone what had happened. The pay phones were all busted, so I, near tears, begged a woman to let me borrow her phone so I could call my mother. The woman was gracious enough, and all I remember next was my mother telling me to go home.

The last thing I did before accepting defeat was to knock at the Station Supervisor’s Office to ask if they had a CCTV camera on the footbridge where I lost my trusty smartphone so I could at least see how it happened. But there was no camera, and they were just another set of people who saw how badly I was keeping it together. It was just 3 p.m., not yet the maddening rush hour, so I found an empty seat in the first train that arrived and closed my eyes. I think I fell asleep when it started raining.

The evening rush hour is less kind, of course, as both people and trains are tired. Some people, in their exhaustion (or insensitivity), would plop right down on the floor and play games on their phone. Others would stay by the door no matter how many times the guard says there is space in the middle. On particularly stressful train rides home, I remember online posts turning the MRT into some grand metaphor for life—after all, so much about the daily MRT rush screams of adventure where there are no heroes, only survivors.

But the train overshooting the tracks in January, sending 38 people to hospital, is not a metaphor. The train management unpredictably halting operations due to faulty signal systems is not a metaphor. No, riding the MRT is an entirely literal picture of how the government is serving its people, how futile complaining is, and how it feels better to just take it, as though silent endurance cancels the weight of what is endured.

And yet. Like in all things, a silver lining, soldering my love into place: acts of kindness among perfect strangers; moments of peace when the trip sails smoothly, when the ticket gates all work, and the lines do not build up as much as they usually do; people making safe circles around the elderly, children, pregnant women and people with disability; the weary giving up their seats for the wearier.

Once, at almost 9 p.m., the train I was in stopped at Magallanes Station because a glitch at another station had paralyzed the entire system. I paced the station, chatted with the guard, and looked at the road below before deciding to catch a bus. Bounding down the stairs, I met a woman who was just coming up. I told her about the situation. We walked together to the bus stop, took the same bus, and made small talk about the MRT, about how Edsa is worse—and when she found out I was a student, she paid for my fare. The woman got off the same bus stop as me and even rode the same jeep, and we talked some more: about ourselves, the work that she did, and the work I wanted to do after college. And just before I disembarked, before the courteous “Ingat” and “God bless,” I asked for her name, knowing that such a memory would elude me soon if I did not give it a handle. Teresa, her name was. I never saw her again.

The trains I know, despite being given to mechanical aches, have borne—and continue to bear—witness to many a meaningful conversation with a friend, to laughter, to half-baked game plans for homework and life, to story plots that will never see paper, to loneliness, to strangers picking up a fallen ticket and handing it back to its owner, to children asking endless questions—Where do you go to school? Have you swum in the Pasig River? Are we really underground?—and to faint memories that will slip away like water through fingers as soon as the operator announces, “Taft Avenue Station. This is the last station. Thank you for patronizing the MRT.”

Nicole-Anne Lagrimas, 18, is a third-year journalism student at the University of the Philippines Diliman.

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