BECAUSE I’D been a worker overseas the last few years, trying not to stick out too much and conceding that I’m sometimes the round peg in a square hole is commonplace for me. It is an acquired skill, and blending in takes practice and patience.
Which is why it was a disorienting change to be among fellow mocha-skinned, and five-foot guys in the giant sardine can also known as the MRT. The last time I was doing this was nearly eight years ago when I was working in a call center. I was like everyone else, trying to get to work on time, from work in time to rest, and keeping my head down.
This time I was the prodigal son come home, hyperconscious of everything around me, wondering if it really looked like everything had frozen in time, and curious if I looked like I’d been away for so long.
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Turned out nobody really cared. It was the same pushing and shoving near the entrance, the unsubtle reminder for you to go towards the middle if you weren’t alighting soon, and grab the nearest strap on the handrail. The ubiquitous telecom provider (Globe Smart and Sun), shampoo and fast food ads were still over the place, the air was smelling of cologne, deodorant and after-shave. Nearly everything was the same.
I said nearly right? It might’ve been my migrant paranoia, but I sensed an urgency, a restlessness among everyone in the MRT car I was riding. Everyone seemed to be in a job they were holding only until they could leave for overseas, and nobody wanted to waste their youth, energy and talents while there was so much money to be made overseas.
Or maybe it was just me. Nearly all the passengers in my MRT car were smartly and fashionably dressed, even the guys had their hair fashionably jelled, the women were wearing smart pumps and perfect make-up. And these were nearly 100% salesladies and messengers, though I have nothing against working in the retail and services industries, they require so much hard work and dedication. The scattered call center babies going home from the graveyard shift didn’t look too tired; in their cool sweaters, cardigans, iPhones and Galaxies they still looked like they were ready for an impromptu gimmick (outing).
In short, everything was what it should be, worker ants getting a little disposable income for the first time, enjoying mass transport and going about their daily grind but ready to enjoy the weekend ahead.
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I felt a different sort of nostalgia on the Quezon Boulevard – Quezon Avenue route between Manila and Quezon City. When you travel on a jeepney, as I did all those years between our house in Paco and the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City, there are no designated zones that determine how much fare you pay the driver. You tell him the landmark nearest the spot you want to get off, and from a fare matrix, he determines the proper amount of coin to charge.
Surprise, surprise. It was with a moist eye that I saw that the well-worn landmarks not only of the route but of my youth were long gone, either demolished or abandoned, even before I left for far-flung kingdoms in Australasia. Pantranco? All I saw was a shell of a building (if at all) near the corner of Quezon Ave. and Roosevelt. Delta? The driver looked bewildered when I mentioned the place , and although there was still a theater in the spot, it was no longer used for cinema. Instead of the old “highway” jeepney stop on the crossroads of EDSA and Quezon Ave, there was a criss-crossing of a bridge and underpass that I couldn’t recognize anymore. The only thing that looked the same was the Welcome Rotonda and the Quezon Memorial Circle. Otherwise, I might as well have been in another city, with all the new high-rises, unfamiliar eating places and old landmarks that were no longer there.
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Don’t worry, I saved the worst for last. Truly, the most depressing and dreary sight that greeted me was Epifanio delos Santos Avenue himself, the artery that joined most of the cities and municipalities of Metropolitan Manila.
Instead of gentrifying or greening the great snake that was EDSA, buildings remained uninhabited, and old structures that should’ve been condemned remained standing. In their midst were disorganized condos and high-rises sprouting with scant regard for the gravel, sand and assorted debris the different construction projects were spewing as a by-product.
All along the thoroughfare were giant ads featuring Ann Curtis, Marian Rivera and a little of Angel Locsin, the latter the least foreign-looking of the trio and therefore the one who rose with the least looks (and for me the most merit, yes I’m biased). These were the made-up, Photoshopped distractions that couldn’t hide the truth : very nearly we were going the way of Beijing and Shanghai, where burgeoning construction and development has resulted in permanently smogged megapolises and where breathable air has without exaggeration already become a luxury.
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I confess it wasn’t an innocent era I came from, and I hardly contributed to the financial and environmental health of my homeland. But looking at the present state of boulevards and avenues of my younger days, I can’t help but miss the naive climes and cooler mornings of the Seventies, Eighties and sometime Nineties, where life was simpler then.
Thanks for reading!