Claustrophobic in a Bipolar City

This is a creative nonfiction writing exercise, submitted October 2011.

I’ve got gadgets and gizmos aplenty; I’ve got whosits and whatsits galore.

You want thingamabobs? I’ve got twenty. But who cares? No big deal. I want more.

I wanna be where the people are. I wanna see, wanna see them dancing.

Up where they walk, up where they run, up where they stay all day in the sun

wandering free, wish I could be, part of that world.

“Part of Your World”, The Little Mermaid

Prologue 

ONCE THERE was a girl who did not care how big the world is. She believed that Manila was the only city where she was meant to be. Content in any place she found herself in, she spent the first twelve years of her life in an apartment along Caballeros and Lavezares Streets. She did almost everything in the bedroom−watch cartoons, study, eat dinner, dress-up, play, sleep. The whole family slept there together, too−she and her sister on the floor on an inflatable mattress, her parents on a queen-sized bed. Occasional dripping from the ceiling, pesky rats, creeping cockroaches did not bother her, nor did she ever question if there could be a better place to be.

Her childhood alternated between home and school, a fifteen-minute drive or a thirty-peso calesa ride away. In school, she savored the thrill of writing down new vocabulary lists and the challenge of proving geometry theorems. A twenty-minute recess each day was packed with games of Chinese garter and jackstones, teasing chatter and lively babbles.

At home, she created colorful worlds in Lego towns, spurring friendships and catfights among Barbie dolls and Bratz girls, created stories in Polly Pocket world and Sylvanian villages populated with little velvet animals. On Saturday afternoons, she and her younger sister first learned to play dress-up and throw the best sleepovers from her neighbor friends who live across the street: two bright and beautiful girls trained to speak in straight English and had such mature auras about them.

In spare moments, she immersed herself in solving mysteries with Nancy Drew, relate with quaint preteen life in Sweet Valley, felt Madison’s angst in Madison Finn series, found the meaning of friendship in The Baby-Sitters’ Club, learned magic spells with Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and relished teenage royalty in The Princess Diaries. 

All the while, this naïve girl did not for once give a thought about what freedom felt, what religion is for, or what being committed meant. She did not aspire much for things beyond her reach. Reaching for dreams and having goals were not on her mental list of priorities, much less anything that lay beyond Manila. She was not indifferent about world geography and foreign lands, but the comfort of knowing they exist is good enough. She remained in a small corner of the world, as satisfied and carefree as she could ever be.

 

Waiting 

Stepping down from the car and saying a soft goodbye to her parents, she walked toward the station keeping her gaze straight ahead, reluctantly letting the lady security guard inspect her bag. She felt frustrated that bag inspection and body frisking was protocol in Manila train lines. Subways of Hong Kong and New York do not have security people in sight.

Two minutes till the next train. Sullen, emotionless faces wait with her. Some seemed as if they preferred not to be there. Some were in all-white uniforms, some were in grayish salesperson attire. Some were in slippers, some clutched copies of Inquirer Libre.

Riding the train would be a dozen times more pleasant, she thought, if only the stations’ gray walls were painted with blues and lavenders, if only two strangers could naturally exchange kind words, if only the speaker system played classical tunes, instead of robotic voices repeatedly reminding passengers to practice good passenger etiquette.

She loved looking at little children, imagining the kind of men and women they will grow up to be. There was a bald man wearing white robes−he definitely had to be a monk. Standing beside him was an indifferent teenage boy in a sleeveless shirt, grubby shorts, and slippers. A couple sat holding each other’s hands, with dreamy expressions, as if nothing else mattered.

Four stations left. Someone offered her a seat. Between squeezing in between strangers and standing, with her laptop in one arm and bag in the other, she always preferred the latter.

Two hours left before philosophy of religion class. She entered McDonald’s and ordered iced chocolate. She looked at the server making her drink and giggled, shaking her head at seeing too much chocolate syrup poured over a cupful of ice, and silently swearing to stick to their 35-peso little cup of hot chocolate (but she did eventually, two weeks after, rationalizing that it was a less sinful alternative to hot fudge sundae, which she stopped ordering when she graduated from high school).

She stepped outside and stumbled upon more nameless people, seemingly having nothing better to do than walk the streets aimlessly, dreaming the same dreams of the finer life, owning thoughts she could never possibly know.

While searching for a tricycle to ride, a man approached her, offering to help her find an available trike. She can feel his need for reciprocity−she gave him some spare coins after stepping into the green tricycle.

She looked up; the sky was on the verge of tears.

 

Walking 

It was a rainy Saturday morning as she stepped inside the black SUV. Classes were put on hold. Her white polka-dotted skirt and black cotton lace blouse matched the grayish blue skies. “I wonder if we are the only crazy college students who went out during a typhoon today,” she told him. He smiled, keeping his eyes on the dreary road before them.

After grabbing some cinnamon churros from a nearby supermarket, they walked towards the two-story café. She always badgered him to go there; at long last, he obliged that day. They walked along the empty streets on Manila’s equivalent of Upper East Side, with numbers as street and avenue names to boot. It was easy to imagine she was in another city, to momentarily forget images of drudgery and despair. It was even easier to trick her mind that this city didn’t have any problems of hunger, corruption, scandals, and crime. Most of all, it was the easiest to  feel that there is nothing wrong in the world, especially when you are surrounded by shops selling cheesecakes for hundreds of pesos and people walking their dogs dressed in pink tutus, with their fur tied with ribbons.

The high ceiling, the scent of warm mocha, her arm gently touching his made her never want to leave. The people around them were preoccupied with their iPads and Macbooks, probably catching up on work.

Five minutes left. They wished time could stop.

If only he did not whine about the rain and the weather, she prefer to walk around the streets. She could walk all day. Walking is her therapy for her; a time to think, a time to touch a few more fragments of independence and freedom, a time to make sense of things.

Time could not stand still. She stepped inside his car, rushing to get home.

 

Wishing 

From the station, she hurried to the car, her dad waiting for her. Beyond the glass window of the cold interior of her dad’s SUV (the car that he bought the year she started college), she glimpsed figments of the lives of strangers. Passing through narrow streets, they were surrounded by people whose main worries were about having something to eat each day and waking up the next morning with their sense of hope still intact.

Young men in matching white polos and black slacks military-cut hair, learning how to guard the city well. High school girls dancing on a cemented area underneath the highway, with cars around them and gray smoke in the air. The men slept idly on their sidecars, waiting for someone looking for a ride. Women with vegetable and fruit carts. A blond girl walked by, her mere presence exuding an extraordinary light from the dullness of it all.

She closed her eyes, not wanting to see anymore. Seeing poverty and chaos around her made her selfishly wish that she didn’t live in this wretched place. She remembered sending a thought via Twitter, into the void, lamenting about how she did not want to live in Manila anymore, how she wished this city was walk-friendly so that she could go to anywhere by herself.

She wanted to forget the people she saw from her backseat window. But it was too late. She closed her eyes once more.

 

Wondering 

She opened her eyes and glanced outside the car window: she was surrounded by lush green trees, cars of varying shades and sizes, multitudes of students walking past. She stepped down the beige SUV and walked towards the campus grounds as she mentally planned the day ahead, unconsciously forgot about yesterday, inevitably fretted a little about tomorrow.

In Philippine history class, her teacher assigned the class an individual project, instructing them to make Philipine history relevant to us, in the most creative way we can. Intramuros, she immediately thought. I want to go to Fort Santiago in Intramuros. I will take pictures, portraying how I see that historic site through my camera lens. It has been four years since I’ve last been there, with my best high school girl friends. This is my chance to go to there again. This time, by myself.

Staring into space as she habitually does, she began to wonder how different it could be, to walk down the streets of a foreign land. She wondered how it felt, to wear a trench coat and boots on snowy winter mornings. She wondered how her meek self would blend in a university filled with impassioned students her age, how she would make international friends from more than a dozen nations.

She once learned in cognitive psychology class that spatial relations of children are different from those of adolescents and adults. Children’s underdeveloped brains still have a distorted sense of space, wherein they make  plenty of exaggerations about distances and land areas. More mature people on the other hand, have more accurate spatial representations in their minds and are able to estimate distances better. Perhaps this is why in a sudden epiphany, she realized she sometimes feels like a prisoner in her own city, and have become more aware than ever of the need to pop the bubble she finds herself in. There is not enough life to be found by going around and about a constant number of square kilometers of land. She needs to see more.

She does not want to be a tourist, though; the dream is to live in a foreign country independently, to walk along streets freely and to go someplace new as much as possible.

She believes that her greatest dream would knock down her greatest fear of not be able to do the things she was meant to do in this life. There must be more that she could be capable of, and that meant going to places, to meet people apart from familiar circles, even if it meant leaving everything else behind.

 

Epilogue

In recent years, she realizes that Manila is disorderly, quirky, perenially interesting−in short, it is bipolar. Middle and upper class citizens live similar urban lifestyles in Manila in two ways. First, malls and theaters are the second sanctuaries of people after Sunday masses. Secondly, being on chaotic Manila streets is inescapable, where all forms of commute−jeepneys, calesas and sidecars, tricycles and bicycles, creaky trains and light rail trains, buses and taxis galore−fill up the streets, finding both drivers and passengers inevitably dazed as they travel towards their destinations.

This capital city is painted with the loud colors of popular culture and mass media, and postmodernity, splashed with the contrasting personalities of 11 million people, sprinkled with the grayness of poverty. Living in this city reminded her to be humble and thankful for to be born in a middle-class family, as she goes out, she sees people sleeping on the streets and little girls holding out their grubby hands on the window of their car.

A select few corners of this bipolar city is filled quaint and modern architecture, of skyscrapers and palatial residential buildings. Places for shopping abound, from sarisari stores to designer boutiques. Students and employees in uniforms stride quickly to their schools and offices in a not-so-walk-friendly city.

For her to walk in the city’s streets by herself, where she could go wherever she wants, without anybody driving her to the places (including the train station, the only form of commute she is allowed to make use of) is a rarity. Being the adventurous, restless, travel-thirsty girl that she is, one of her greatest dreams therefore, is to live in a walk-friendly, safe, and picturesque city so she can get lost within whatever sights and sounds brings.

Her love-hate relationship with bipolar Manila will remain, until the city government finds a way to let her go places without having to ride a car, until the city becomes walk-friendly, until she can go out of her home whenever she wants, and not to worry about anything.

This girl eventually began to care how big the world is. She will not cease treading new paths, until she discover where she is truly meant to be.

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