Back in Delhi, remembering Manila

March 1, 2013 § Leave a comment

In Kuzart Lane, yet another hipstery café in Hauz Khas, on the speakers right now is a very angry, very rocking version of George Michael’s “Careless Whispers,” which somehow, strangely made it more bearable… mostly because it was more forgettable, not that memorability is all that a desirable thing, for me at least. Filipinos have this thing for songs that inevitably turn into ear worms. The music sticks with you long after you’ve arrived home, after battling a long day of traffic, long after you’ve tucked yourself into bed, replaying in your mind, cloying, saccharine tunes circulating around your dome—incessantly.   When doing some research in the National Library (a poorly organized disaster – sigh) the manangs of the archive made their tismis under the din of a looping soundtrack that seemed to entirely consist of  Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life,” Phil Collins’ “Against All Odds,” W. Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All,” Air Supply’s “Two Less Lonely People in the World Tonight,” Go West’s “King of Wishful Thinking” and Debbie Gibson’s “I Get Lost in Your Eyes.” I swear—only those six songs.

Songs like these, strangely always remind of the Philippines, and especially of the drive to Batangas (which since the construction of the South Luzon Expressway) now takes about half the time it did when I was a kid, when the road cut through nothing but endless groves of banana and coconut trees. As we would get deeper into Batangas, we’d encounter denser patches of what seemed to me, untamed jungle, though in reality I know it wasn’t all that wild since the bends in “zigzag” road has always been peppered with coffee and cacao sellers. Still the Bauan-Batangas provincial road stays much the same as it did when the Americans first built it, though now the concrete has been resurfaced in asphalt, perhaps dozens of times. When I was 16, I first noticed strip mining on the approach to Anilao, by college that same patch was nothing but a shear rock face. Now a large enough area has been cleared and flattened to host huge petrol storage tanks—emblazoned with the Petron logo. The coup de grâce however, (well perhaps not the coup de grâce, but Anilao hasn’t been the same since) was when the wetmarket in Anilao’s town square was replaced by a gas station. This used to be where fishermen in their tiny single person catamarans would bring in their morning booty. Daryl and I used to wake up really early, to catch them as they were hauling in their fish nets. We would approach them with our plastic tabos and they would kindly fill them up with the tiny fish they couldn’t sell at market. Sometimes they were tiny bright things, sometimes they were flat guys in sand camouflage. They’d also give us huge blue starfish and sometimes they would discard these huge purple jellyfish, but we would never touch these because my mom warned me that if we did that part of our skin would be itchy—FOREVER. Many years later when learning how to windsurf in Anilao bay I was stung by a jellyfish. It wasn’t itchy, it did burn like crazy, but only for about a week.

Anyway… oil, gas, diesel, it’s everywhere in Batangas, and I suppose this is just the inevitable conclusion of a thriving car culture, the seeds of which were planted with the construction of the provincial roads, which made it possible for my mom and her 5 brothers and sister to go to school in Manila and for my grandmother to teach there. The roads quite literally paved the way for 6 of my grandma’s 7 children to eventually raise families and make careers for themselves in the states. Today 18 of their 21 grandchildren and 19 of their 23 great grandchildren are spread all over the world, not a one of them speaks Tagalog, a sad but true fact, though I’m working on this. Speaking of American car culture in the Philippines, one Melvin A. Hall toured the world in a Packard with his mom. He had this to say of the Philippines, and the roads that would eventually spread us around the globe:

The Philippine Islands present a different proposition to the motorist than anything else in the East, because of the comparatively recent opening of even passable overland communication. Before the advent of the American Bureau of Public Works, a matter of five or six years only, motors could not penetrate 3 miles beyond the limits of Manila and the idea of touring anywhere in the Islands was too absurd to be entertained. In the short time since 1908 fifteen hundred miles of road have been opened and maintained, and the total amount is being greatly increased annually. Those roads rated as first class are magnificent metaled highways equal to anything in the East, and the surprising ignorance of their extent and excellence, even among residents of the Islands, must be due to the fact that the best ones are not found about Manila, and because the urgent need for roads in widely separated localities does not allow of their being at once connected into a complete system.

But returning to the topic of industrialization… when my grandmother was young, she spearheaded a campaign to keep a hotdog factory out of Anilao. Sometimes I think if my grandmother was still alive and strong she would have single handedly stopped the gas station from being built in that town square, where we set off countless firecrackers at various new years celebrations—trompillos, fountains, comically enormous sparklers and my favorite, roman candles. Though they were probably too dangerous for us to handle anyway, we definitely couldn’t set them off there now.

On our short visit to Anilao last week, we paid our respects at my grandparents’ crypt . My uncle Bob’s ashes are there too, flown there five years after he died, only a week before my parents’ 25th anniversary. My grandparents were both born in 1909, only a decade after the conclusion of the Spanish-American War. The waning ‘insurgent’ activities of the Philippine-American War continued in the south. My grandmother died at the age of 88, a couple of months after I graduated from high school in 1997, two days after my brother’s 18th birthday. My grandfather died the year afterwards, two days before my 18th birthday on August 25 . There are so many things I’d like to ask them, like what if anything they remembered about the American occupation in the years before WWII, about the road construction, about how they were able to install the first toilet in the town—and why they decided to do that, whether they knew anyone that resented the Americans, about their old nipa house with the chicken coop built into a level below the house, about not having electricity until the year I was born (1979), about the hot dog factory, about why they decided they didn’t want to retire in the States (opening up a beach resort in Anilao instead), about what they thought about the German sex tourists staying at the resort that they told us to stay away from, about how the beach used to be covered in the most amazing shells, about how they evaporated sea water for their own salt supply, about writing her 5th grade math textbook (apparently still used in the Philippines), about marrying my handsome grandfather who was from a much poorer family than hers. So many things.


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