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A Journey in the City of Men

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A journey in the city of men A lyrical essay in twelve scenes By Georgij Engelbrecht Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. -Augustine of Hippo, City of God. Hey Joe, where you gonna run to now, Where you gonna go -Jimi Hendrix Prelude: My Decalogue What is Manila? -The Nation’s capital, a place where times collide; distorted vibes of a city’s bursting s
  1 A journey in the city of men  A lyrical essay in twelve scenes By Georgij Engelbrecht  Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to thecontempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. -Augustine of Hippo, City of God. Hey Joe, where you gonna run to now,Where you gonna go -Jimi Hendrix Prelude: My Decalogue What is Manila?  - The Nation’s capital, a place where times collide; distorted vibes of a city’s bursting soul.  What was the first taxi driver talking about, shortly after you arrived in this flamboyant town, Maynila?  -Corruption, Marcos and gasoline prices. But those politics of conversation soongave way to the poetry of night. What have you noticed at first whilst driving from the airport to Makati?  -The scenery of Parañaque. It was not special, but it just felt right. How did you like Makati?  -Not that much. Besides, some say Makati is a fake anyways. What do you remember about the cab trip from airport to residence?  -Youngsters playing basketball. Barbecue vendors. Did you notice some sort of poverty?  -I would lie if I say I had not seen it, but I was not sure how to feel about it. I’ mnot even sure now. My opinions evolve and dismantle like dust on the roads of Metro Manila. What did you like the most?  -Barangay San Antonio close to the Fire Station along Kamagong Street. Manila Bay. What were the trademarks of that area?  -A simple Filipino restaurant with great Tapsilog. The laundry shops, the videokebars. How do you like to be called Joe?  -It is okay but tiring. Now I am telling correcting everybody that my name isGeorge. -Did you get sick in the first days?   2  Just the usual: Manilitis Tropicalis  (Better than Dengue though). The moist heat  just kills a thousand times ( and a million raindrops more?  ) if you’re not used to the climate. But what do you really feel here? -A sense of illusionary belonging. Kumusta  It is raining, and I immediately feel the pleasant smell of the downpour making love to the earth. On the streets, perpetual carnival of souls and spices. Thetraveler arrived in time of tropical blossom, seeing the Pearl of the Orient ingrandeur and a near-derelict, yet strangely appealing aura. Neither him, nor theplace understand themselves; purpose and direction unknown. And when thesedreams are not the end, reality awakes and steps in. Oh Manila! - Daughter of Eastand West! Or rather a cold, mutated hybrid, I hear you, skeptic.I decided to find it out for myself (and maybe others), and pursued to follow many roads, to see  it (the city, the feelings  –  the everything and nothing) for myself (through the eyes of an unbiased observer, or so I thought), and to watch it, work it, live it, save it. Getting baked in the sizzling sun, washed up by rain, caught up ina baptism of fire again, flames of the sun and waves of the water close to ManilaBay. And then, all of a sudden the drops from out of nowhere, again! Tropical Tristesse  , or as Nick Joaquin would put it: Tropical Gothic. Oh Manila, I want tocome back to Manila. Simply no place like Manila  –  please let me coming home. Time for a trip, dreamer, said the inner voice, play some urban melody for me andyou. I followed the call and this is what happened on this day and during all theother days. Manila made me an object of its will: I walked around, I took the bus,the people helped me - but in the end, the wings did let me go. There were cabs,dozens of them. Jeepneys too, and not to mention tricycles, the three-wheeledchariots of the Filipino roads. What else, you might ask, curious reader? Maybe Ican paint the scene a bit in detail; a colorful sketch of flying vehicles, overseeing the city of men with the view of a grayish panorama. They are flying alongside thered sky just like a fleet of  aswangs  . Spreading voiceless dust to the barangay. Or justobserving the tropical phantasmagoria holding you tightly.Metro Manila bears ubiquitous elements of surprise which could get a hold of youalmost everywhere. A food court at a street corner, a 7/11 store in a remotequarter of Quezon City and many other corners might be the places where surrealevents and settings will pop out and make you a part of it. Sure, this is a trademark of almost all big cities, and if you are in a region which appeals to you because of its exotic flavor, well, it could be not that surprising. I concur. But only a few places are truly surreal in the sense o f a juxtaposition of “two more or less distant  3 realities.” Images influence the ways we think, and if they manage to cause a poetic arousal, they have been productive. This is the story of my images. Halo Halo  Sometimes, I am looking at the chatty cab driver, the waitress at the Chineserestaurant or the underground indie hipster from Cubao  –  and they are just mereexpressions of this structural mega-force which calls itself National Capital Region.If God was a Magical Realist, then Metro Manila would have been both Eden andBabylon; yet with a distinct tropical touch, not fully devoid of virtue, and notentirely stricken with vice. It is this feeling you manage to grasp when you read Jose Rizal or F Sionel Jose, whose pens could have easily sketched One Hundred Years of Solitude  in a typical Filipino setting. It is this feeling of melancholy you getby immersing into the deep and moving stories  –  family or saints or simple tales -of the natives, which linger behind the omnipresent and persistent smiles andlaughter. It is also the bitter aftertaste of all kinds of periods for the presentgenerations. A topography of saints and sinners, a map of endless movements. OhRain  –  it starts and stops and starts and stops and starts again. Even when thetorrent is coming down, the traditional ways persist. I am catching a tricycle andlook forward to going downtown, but it is not possible since I happen to be inmidst of a funeral procession. In front: a black limousine, followed by a bunch of jeepneys. Hired by friends and relatives of the dead, they stroll along the road,heavy yet colorful. I see people smiling, and laughing. Phil Collins roars out of the window. Life is good …   Suburbia  … and when you stand on top of a tower, or a condominium (a resident complex),or when you happen to enjoy a barbecue on a balcony somewhere in Makati  –   alternatively a rooftop - one of most popular settings for some fêtes among thenouveau riches of Manila or the various expats in the city - then you see it: Thetree of smoke, or the cloudy pillar, above the metropolis, its dusty wings spreading in patterns of nets, a gigantic bell jar. Sixteen town-districts make up this QueenCity of the Pacific, all meeting and dissolving via endless highways, skyways, routesand boulevards. Of course I ’m not able to see them all, it’s just a fantasy. Looking over those Makati boulevards, where the streets have many names, and wherecertain things go by the name of whatever you are willing and prepared to callthem. What to think and what to say (or what to fear?) when you immerse yourself into that vastness which some tongues would (still) call a “Third World Hellhole”?  4  –  a hell of overpopulation, poverty, dirt, noise, alienation, bad governance andcorruption?Personally, just to make sure that all the accusations are tied up in a fair manner, I would like to add up other bad vibes of a 21 st century urban nightmare  –  they arehowever more stereotypical of so-called Western centers - such as plainsuperficiality, hyper-individualism and a certain belief in the superiority of money. The worst of both worlds might marry and create a truly bizarre place. Manila isfar from being Hongkong or Singapore, it is not Bangkok or Jakarta either. Not tomention the happy-go-lucky Vietnamese twins Hanoi and Ho-Chi- Minh City. It’s Manila, lo-fi and simple. It is the town that used to be one of the most beautifulplaces in Asia, a beauty which might still be there, if it were not for an unfortunatecombination of events  –  some of them, accidental, some of them - well, not really. The casual visitor may be surprised by the different neighborhoods, and the spatialconnections between the different worlds of Manila. When rocket-capitalismmeets squatter areas, dimensions are broken; creating an oddly perverted Third- World-Remix (fellow liberals, I beg pardon for the epithet)of a juxtaposed placeHere, gated communities and slums, skyscrapers and concrete jungle become theflesh and bones, only to be torn apart by connectors which can be both movable(taxis) or permanent (the malls and the monuments). Indeed, pockets of Manilaare like this     –  loud, exhausting - or at least that was how  I  felt it. Sometimes it was just too much   –  a human instinct, a human drive to recognize the obvious. No pretense,no shame to admit what seems so obvious.Do you get used to it? That is the secret question whose answer defines who youare in Manila, or how you feel about it. Or any other place actually. Focusing onthe mud will lead you down the road of ignorance and disgust, and you miss all thegood parts. Because there are truly illuminating corners everywhere. It all starts inthe head.One of the most intriguing sides of Metro Manila is its subconscious connectionto the brothers in America. Public buildings in a Greco-Roman style transfer the visitor to Washington D.C. (and further back in time to good ole’ Rome or  Athens)  –  heritage of the former colonial power. Fast-Food outlets and giganticmalls are other elements of a culture build up on largesse. Some accounts of  journalists likened Manila’s suburban areas such as Bel Air  or  Alabang  toresidential districts such as Beverly Hills or some other parts of Los Angeles.Streets, squares, bridges and highways are named after historic heavyweights (andscheming Machiavellians) Taft, Roosevelt, Ford and many others. Ironically, thepresence of the Americans was limited to the usual colonial institutions: enclaves,clubs and barracks. Intermingling was not seen with delight, yet escapades of theone or the other civil servant proved that unions were not discouraged per se.
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