By Julia Escaño
Five lanes of single-occupancy sedans and gleaming chauffeured SUVs cram themselves into the three lanes of Ortigas, an avenue connecting Manila’s main arteries of EDSA and C-5. The afternoon sun beats down on tangled cars, the heat creating a shimmering effect on their metal surfaces. Meanwhile an emaciated woman, her bony face smudged with black grease, t-shirt and shorts tattered, weaves her way barefoot through the traffic. She hopes the naked, snotty toddler on her arm evokes enough pity to merit one or two pesos (0.021 USD) – twelve pesos and she’ll have enough for a pack of instant noodles, her family’s dinner for the next few days. She taps on a white Range Rover’s window, but its uniformed driver just taps back impatiently. “Shoo!” it means. She walks away, undaunted. She starts singing the latest ubiquitous Filipino love song instead.
Inside the luxury SUV, so shiny it looks like it has invisible polishers perpetually wiping it, a middle-aged man in a suit and tie looks up from his iPhone7. He doesn’t even see the woman. He taps his driver’s shoulder. “Squeeze yourself there so you can edge him out.” He points between a Toyota Corolla and a Honda Jazz. The man is a mestizo. They are characterized by their aquiline nose and fair skin; nothing about them betrays an Asian heritage save for an ambiguous slant on their deep, round eyes. After three centuries of colonization, Eurasian features are only one of the many imprints left by the Spanish on the Filipino’s genetic makeup. To this day mestizos are still considered superior, the ruling class. This man will undoubtedly head home to his 5-bedroom mansion in a gated, guarded subdivision, eat ribeye steak prepared by his home cook, and then raise his soft feet on a king-sized bed as he winds down to an episode of Narcos.
Not too far away, right above EDSA, are the throng of office-workers piling onto the Metro Rail Transit terminals. The sight of the on-coming train elicits sighs of relief after waiting in line for an hour just to get on the platforms, and another hour to board. The nose-to-nape crowd inside the coach is much more bearable now that home is so near. Along the stretch of EDSA are commuters, elbowing each other almost to the middle of the street in the hopes of getting onto buses first. In the Philippines, the term “commuter” refers to people who travel using public transportation. Buses in turn cut and overtake each other, occupy lanes for private cars, and essentially cause kilometers of backlog as they vie for passengers. Each bus’s conductor screams their destination (despite it being written in bold, bright green letters on a signboard). The crowd on the street pushes forward like a massive, undulating wave. The lucky, aggressive, and strong find themselves triumphantly on the bus. Horns punctuate the cacophony of chaos.
It’s been seven years since I battled for space in a coach or bus, using stealth and my small frame to slip between pushing and shoving bodies in order to get ahead. In 2010 my parents bought me a car to ease their minds when I stayed at work until 3am, finishing ad campaigns for “The Man”. If Manila by day is a boiling pot of chaos, Manila by night is a quiet beast that hides its fangs and claws behind flickering lampposts and dank alleyways. The menace lurks in silence, biding its time, waiting to pounce. My parents were beside themselves thinking of me walking those streets alone. These days I travel in the comforts of my Honda City, moving at my own pace (or as much as Manila’s congestion permits). I may not have a uniformed driver, but I have been upgraded nonetheless. Yet, in spite of that, I find myself venturing out, leaving the car behind, and taking on the city without my shield. Comfort can only give so much texture and character after all.
Just the other day I wound my way through the infamous district of Quiapo, about thirty kilometers from my home city of Marikina. I was there to buy special ham at my mother’s request. I inched between the makeshift, temporary stalls and weekend crowds along Carriedo Street. The mood was bustling, frenzied, as shoppers hunted down bargains. Haggling was verbal warfare in these parts. Pop hits blasting from stereo shops along Avenida, a main road perpendicular to Carriedo, drowned the hawkers’ calls and the loud chatter. Heat from the press of bodies radiated through the throng. Smells of sweat, clogged sewers, and oranges for sale wafted up my nose. It was such an assault. And I loved every moment of it.
“Oh my God! Why would you do that?” My friend Annie, a stylish young banker, was aghast at finding out where I’d been. We were having lunch at Greenbelt 5, a high-end mall in Makati City. While Quiapo was a mecca of cheap finds and affordable gifts, it’s a nightmare for the likes of Annie who shop in D&G, Michael Kors, and other such fancy boutiques. It wasn’t only about the swarm of people, the noise, or the smells. Some people, especially the rich who stand out like pine trees in the midst of a coconut plantation, also legitimately fear for their belongings if not their lives. Annie has never been to Quiapo, nor will she probably ever be. That is just the nature of her world. I shrugged. “It can be fun,” I said. She rolled her eyes at me and gave me the perfect swirl of disgust and incredulity.
Once again I am caught in between. I have lived within each of these disjointed and extreme worlds. I am not a rich mestizo, but I come from a family that’s comfortable enough to know such luxuries as drivers and house helpers. At the same time I was raised simply, so that I grew up taking buses, jeepneys, and trains. I am lucky enough to grow up exposed, familiar, and comfortable with the disparity not only of lifestyles, but also of sensibilities, tastes, and mindsets of the people around me. Moreover, I loved it! I found this diversity exciting, enriching. It opened my mind into a level of consciousness and understanding I wouldn’t have had things been easy. For all its craziness, it was this fragmented world that taught me empathy, courage, faith, resilience, gratitude, and above all, the knowledge that there is always a deeper connection. However, this kind of thinking also presented me with a challenge: I never felt like I truly belonged anywhere. Between social classes that never interact save as boss and employee, factions of society who have nothing but insults for each other, and a very tribal attitude, the friction in the atmosphere could create literal fire.
It was perhaps this friction that led me to seek something more; something which doesn’t force me to choose one or the other: convenience vs. character, adventure vs. fear, status vs. sensitivity. This eternal tug and shove I had with my world needn’t be there. I knew there could be somewhere where I could have all of that, where I could wander for hours and not be scared for my life, where I could get down and dirty and not be judged as insane, where I could like fancy things without being branded an a*hole, where I’m not boxed-in as privileged or disadvantaged based solely on what I like to do and where I like to go. I knew there could be somewhere where I could be free of my environment’s physical and psychosocial limits.
Despite the endless, unmanageable knots of roads and humans around me, I find my heart anchored to them as I start seeking more, further and further away. And the more entwined I become with my home’s insanity, the further I want to go.
Julia Escaño is a writer and digital nomad currently based between Manila and Vancouver. She likes exploring themes on the Filipino diaspora and on “traveling while brown”, issues she became more aware of as she ventured farther from home. She finds that the hardest thing about traveling is leaving her three dogs behind, and the best thing about coming home is reuniting with her mattress. Julia blogs about her travels at wanderingjulia.com.