It was a bright summer day, clear enough to see the grains of a fierce blue sky. The clouds were silver dogs running across the horizon, streaking past apartments and billboards and electrical wire. The weather called for a brisk stroll, for travel, something the city’s inhabitants knew very well. Mid-morning on a Saturday and already the hot streets were clogged with sputtering cars. Manila, like the pockmarked, chain smoking behemoth it truly was, had been coughing up plumes of smoke since before dawn.
The plan today was to take the long route towards the Ang Bandang Shirley album launch in Pasay by riding the entire length of the MRT-3 train line. Although the point of the concert was to promote the band’s new album, my secret desire was to hear live, for the second time, one of their most played songs: Nakauwi Na (Gone Home). I brought enough money to buy all the paraphernalia I could, hopefully including at least one record and several sheets of limited edition stickers.
To my disappointment the train was stalled upon my arrival at Centris Station. The platform was brimming with loitering passengers who had nothing more to do but wait. They sat where they could, on benches, exposed railings, the stairs. Or else they stood. The delay had struck everyone, young and old, making even the guards tense with exasperation. No one could get into the coaches, which were about to burst like cans of spoiled sardines. From the inside one man’s face pressed tightly against a window. Forehead slick with sweat, his eyes seemed to reflect the quiet despair of those buried alive.
Suddenly, the coach doors opened. The train began to leak. Slowly at first, just one or two men breaking free from the suffocating mass inside. Then a family stepped out, a baby on its father’s back. And then some schoolgirls, uniformed call center workers, old men wearing baseball caps. Before long, a flood. They swamped the platform, streams of sullen passengers heaving towards the turnstiles. Were they impatient, or was it too hot inside? No, worse. The train was broken. Something with the tracks. The line would only function from Shaw to Taft Station, kilometers away from where we were standing.
The train wouldn’t be leaving at all.
Thankfully, Saturday traffic was on the low end of hellish. A quick jeep ride took us to Roosevelt Station of the LRT-1, the oldest and crankiest line. Winding L-shaped from Quezon City to Pasay and beyond, it was born Benjamin Button-style, old first before becoming young later. Although the government would add new coaches, new coats of paint, and even a new smart card, they could never hide the train’s ramshackle past. Its support beams had cracked before it was 5 years old.
Like the other stations, Roosevelt affected the appearance of a gigantic eraser, wide and heavy, its monolithic body propped above the highway by squat concrete pillars. Past the station’s stairs it was all grime and rust, rivers of pipes churning quietly overhead. Everything had a disquietingly dystopian look. It had something to do with the light, pouring from pale fluorescent bulbs like diluted milk, and the city’s surrounding voice, a senseless yell of car honks and lumbering engines interspersed by the heavy trundling of the train. If the rails formed a city’s arteries, and the roads its veins, then this node of Metro Manila’s vascular system was suffering from chronic disease.
But at least it was working. We hopped aboard a carriage as the doors whined to a close. Outside, beneath a haze of smog, passed plains of red roofs, blue roofs, orange and yellow roofs, roofs upon roofs, a madman’s quilt only visible from a high flying plane. Occasionally sprawling slums interrupted the tableau of houses. Hot and congested places, they were easily distinguishable by their use of tin for roofing, flimsy sheets that oxidize into a glinting brown after exposure to the elements. Like anthills many of these communities were also vulnerable to sudden demolition, the hovels destroyed to make room for shiny new apartments.
Then the sun disappeared as the train ratcheted between rows of towering buildings. Past the windows rushed by scrummy hotels, aging warehouses, and slumping condominiums groaning from the strain. Short segments of the ride passed through narrow spaces such as this, cramped and claustrophobic, the train hemmed in by imposing concrete, where large and battered facades reduced the afternoon into the half-light before a storm. As shadows shrunk the city into a darkened corridor, it seemed as if the future of the city was etched onto the moldering paint of passing walls.
These short periods of semi-darkness gave an intimate view of piled human detritus glimpsed behind a procession of broken, shattered windows. Only limp tarpaulin sheets provided any modicum of privacy. Otherwise there was a painful nakedness, mattresses propped up like broomsticks, dirty bottles littered beside half-open doors. Many times there would also be stacks of bulging cardboard boxes, kept closed by enough packing tape to send a family abroad. And in other places, other ruins. Burned out rooms black as rotting teeth, shops with nothing but dust on the shelves. The emptiness chased us as we passed by.
It seemed oddly fitting how abandonment occurred so frequently near the rumble of rapid transit. As if the passage of the train had become a symbol for escape, dragging with it all those searching for new jobs, new opportunities, and new lives.
Below us the road was paralyzed by squabbling buses. In their wake was a trail of vans and pickup-trucks, taxis and FXs — opportunistic ducklings following big and belching mother ducks. For one of the most densely populated cities in the world, it often feels as if Manila has the infrastructure of a child’s wildest, most chaotic Hot Wheels dream. The traffic can get to the point where there might as well be no road at all. And with only three rail lines to serve nearly a million daily commuters, it’s no wonder people clump up in the city like arterial plaque.
12:30 P.M. Before the trains even existed, when the Philippines was still under American rule, a tramcar would have been the one to drive me to Carriedo Station. But the ancient tramvia system did not survive the Japanese invasion, the street level tracks disappearing under piles of rubble. Once the envy of Singapore, only maps of the tramvia routes survived, to be used for the planning of future public transportation. Jeeps now operate the streets where the trams once trundled by, and even the modern train lines trace the tramvia’s original track network, with the LRT-1 following the decades old thoroughfare of Taft Avenue.
Nearby were landmarks of the old city. Quiapo Church, Quiapo Market, the faded avenue of Escolta. And Binondo, the world’s oldest Chinatown, bustling and chaotic and hopelessly lively, its jumbled tangle of streets protected by Feng Shui. The place was famous for its meals of stir-fried noodles, hopia, lumpia, siopao, and ngohiong. In the restaurants my lunch came to the table in many flavors and iterations, served with a side of sweet soup.
The enclave’s aura of mercantilism extended beyond its borders. Along the shadowed sidewalks leading back to the station were vendors selling shoes, slippers, cheap headphones, and more. Their stalls could be found in the lee of buildings, evading the burning tropical sun, and before it was banned, under canvas tents. Else they would be right beneath the station. Most of them were there, far below the rails, in the warren of graffiti-sprayed alleys smelling like hair and damp gravel, with a hint of rice left to rot in the sun. One was selling rubber watches beside a lamppost, using its shadow in the absence of a tree.
I approached him.
Alan Abalos came from Marawi City, and is a man who grins a lot. “My family led me here,” he says. His father was a wholesaler, and he came to Manila to try and do the same. The G-Shocks, his watches, sell well in the city. Does he mind his neighbors are not Muslim? “No, no, not at all.”
Around Carriedo Station entire Christian and Muslim families had shops beside each other, the borders of religion blurred by the common need for a decent living. The dynasties revolved around inheriting spots on the pavement, the parents passing it on their children, who planned on passing it on to their children, and then on to their children, and then on and on until no sidewalks existed anymore. It was enough to make household dramas a common thing to see played out on the streets, boyfriends with two girlfriends, husbands with both a girlfriend and a wife. Purses would start flying, then slippers, and then pieces of candy. The fights were interesting things to watch.
Some stories, however, left a bitter taste. “We used to be legal,” says Pao, a vendor selling leather shoes. City hall had suspended the vendors’ licenses years ago in a bid to clean up the streets. So what they’re doing now is technically illegal, something reflected in the way most things are laid out on east to carry racks. The police come by from time to time, truncheons sheathed, and tell everyone to pack up and leave. Most of the time they do it pityingly, but the vendors must go all the same. The disruptions can last for a day, a week, or even a month, leaving many without a reliable means to buy food.
But President Duterte has made life easier — at least according to some. Snatchers have gone back into their burrows, cops have stopped demanding payment, and drug dealers are either below ground or in prison. The streets are safer, or maybe not. Some nights a gunshot cracks the dark. The next day someone will turn up face down on the ground, dead, blood caking their ruined face. It’s easy to understand the polite distrust floating among the vendors. Like any other close, tight-knit community, they respond to trouble by exhibiting a polite wariness.
They could leave, of course, but where would they go? And why would they even want to? Most of them were born beneath the rails, and the rest have raised families here as well. The generational nature of the vendors bound them to the darkened alleys where their parents had once made a living. To them, this was home.
The people below the station had shown great hospitality, the kind expected of anyone welcoming a visiting guest. In truth, I had passed their piece of pavement several times before, the stalls invisible to me as I passed by. But this time it was different. Only now did the sidewalk reveal itself as a place families returned to. And as if just by talking to them I had begun to gather ties of my own, created by the simple act of conversation.
The sun was setting when the train approached EDSA Station, my stop at Carriedo Station extending far beyond its allotted time. Enough passengers had gone down on earlier stations to give those remaining the miracle of empty seats. Before, it was crowded enough for a man to lick the sweat off another’s back if he wanted to. Sweat was one of the defining things about the train. It was on your hands, dripping down your scalp, swirling in the stale air. On bad days each breath in the coaches sucked another person’s sweat into your lungs.
Like most endings, the day’s closing had a melancholy tinge. As the platform neared, and with it disembarkation, I began to plan another trip, thinking in the rapid-fire manner of those who do not normally plan. There would be another train ride, this time on the LRT-2 line, still undercapacity a decade after completion. The doors slid open. Maybe-
I couldn’t get out. A knot of people had gathered outside the doors and they, with the single-mindedness of cattle, had begun pushing their way in. I looked around. Everyone who wanted to get out had managed to get out, except for me. I was stuck, stiff as a statue, gritting my teeth in frustration, braving the flood of people purged of any recognizable humanity by their desperation to get on the train. I could see their eyes as they shoved past my shoulders, the whites paler than eggs.
The conductor waved frantically to the driver to stop, to no avail. A high-pitched beeping signaled the doors’ closing, increasing the frenzy of those still outside. I could hold them back no longer. The flood quickly became a torrent, forcing me back to the opposite side. I adjusted my glasses. Outside, I could see my friend searching for me on the platform and I swore, loudly, as the train began hurtling towards the next station.
Night at the Blue Bay Gardens. It had taken me near an hour to get back to EDSA Station and find a jeep going to Pasay. On the rocky ride to the concert grounds I had felt my mood dipping and dipping, like the sun just about to drop below the horizon. Everything I had wanted to buy would be sold out by the time I arrived.
In the end, my prediction came true. Nothing remained except for a single page of stickers. But right now, none of that seemed to matter. In front of me, on a stage just high enough to brush with my fingers, were all seven members of Ang Bandang Shirley.
Though no clouds marred the pale face of the moon, shining brightly from a jet black sky, electricity still coursed through my veins as if I had been struck by lightning. This was the third of three sets and still the great knot of sadness and excitement within me was overwhelming. I crushed the can of beer in my hand as Selena walked up to the mic. This would be her last night singing for the band.
“Thank you for coming,” she said, or maybe she didn’t even say anything, I no longer remember. All I know is once the music began streaming out over the grounds I began jumping up and down, up and down, leaping about like a rabbit set on fire. I knew this song. I knew this song. Had been waiting for it ever since I woke up this morning, hearing echoes of it throughout the day. Knew its shape ever since I first heard it live three months ago, and it sent a thunderbolt crashing through my heart even harder now than it did then. They started singing, and inside I started weeping. Kahit walang katapusan, hindi ka iiwan-
The crowd roared back. Basta’t makasama ka, ako’y nakauwi na, nakauwi naaaaaa!
I was home.