Thursday, June 10, 2004

I Heart Manila

"Aren't you glad we're from Manila?" On a night bus from Barcelona to Madrid, a strange thing to say indeed. But I looked over to my friend and said this with a wide smile and not a little bit of smugness.

It was in the middle of the night when we woke from the commotion. The bus had stopped on the side of the road and two armed officers were on board, speaking in rapid Spanish with two young American women, roughly our age, from right across our seats. I was clueless to what was going on. I tugged my friend's sleeve asking her to translate. She shushed me and listened intently to the exchange. One American woman spoke in relatively fluent Spanish, calmly but with urgency, seemingly explaining something. Her friend looked distraught. The Spanish officer asked a few questions while casting sweeping looks over the passengers. We could've been an ad for United Colors of Benetton. A bus full of people of different creeds, tongues, smells and melanin content.

The tension inside the bus was mounting as the American's voice seemed to ring more with urgency. The whole bus was quiet, save for an occasional cough and murmur. From my six units of Spanish I surmised the two young women lost something. Some 15 minutes passed and the officers got off the bus. They spoke with the driver on the side of the road, beams from their flashlights moving to and fro.

I turned to my friend with expectant eyes. The distraught young woman apparently lost her wallet. Cash, traveler's cheques, credit cards. She had left it in her backpack on our last stopover and upon climbing back on the bus, found that it was gone. "How stupid can anyone get?" I thought. What a couple of dumb Americans. I looked reassuringly at my orange Benetton backpack with all my important belongings in it, squashed between my legs, with the straps wrapped around my ankles. My friend patted her money belt, safely tucked underneath her sweater. Nothing prepares you for "roughing it up" in a foreign land like growing up in Manila.

Innate distrust of strangers, paranoia, and "It’s a jungle out there" are lessons taught us Manileños. Sometimes these are hard lessons learned, but most times, we’ve been taught these common-sense facts from cradle to kindergarten, to grade school until we have it completely drilled in our heads that "It’s a dog-eat-dog world." Trust no one, rely on no one and always question a seemingly freely-given helping hand. There’s all sorts of scams, modus operandi and criminals (petty or hardened) out there to get your money or do you bodily harm. You know this and I know this.

You don’t leave your backpack, let alone your wallet in a bus-load full of strangers. Not for a quick cup of coffee from the vending machine not quite ten meters away, not for a minute, not for a nanosecond. But for two young women from God knows which quiet little American suburb, the thought wouldn’t occur that someone might rifle through their belongings and steal their valuables while on a stop over on a bus-trip in Spain. They probably wouldn’t think twice about handing their bag to a stranger on the side walk while tying their shoe strings (as one Spaniard did me). Growing up in this city hardens you and prepares you for the simple fact that people are not to be trusted and they will dupe you given any chance they get.

One wonders what it might be like to have grown up somewhere else. Perhaps, being less in shock when you find your wallet, with all your money and credit card in it, at the lost and found, intact. A few weeks before this bus-trip I had accidentally left my wallet in the school washroom in Paris. It was but a few minutes after when I remembered I’d forgot it in the cubicle. There was queue after me. I knew I was fucked, but I went to check anyway. No wallet. I then went to the administration office in panic and asked, but with little hope, whether anyone had given them a brown wallet left in one of the toilets. And lo and behold! Someone found what I’d lost and returned it promptly to authorities. And no, no one was hanging around waiting for her reward for having been a Good Samaritan. I think it was the snotty Swede who came after me. I hated her guts, but at least she was honest.

If I’d grown up in Stockholm, like she did, I’d know I should wait for the green man on intersections before crossing because the minute I step on the road every frickin’ motorist within a five meter radius will stop to a screeching halt for me, the mighty pedestrian. If I’d grown up in Vancouver, I’d know “beggars” on the streets strumming their guitars and drawing crowds are doing honest “work,” not a diversion for pickpockets to pilfer unsuspecting folks' wallets. If I’d grown up in Tokyo, I’d know someone offering to help me change a flat tire doesn’t expect a service charge.

That is why it always, always shocks me when I receive random acts of kindness in this city. In a span of a few days I believe I’ve set a record of sorts. My car’s radiator needs repairing and has been overheating but I hadn’t known this of course til after a few times I’ve stalled. The first time a cab driver stopped and offered me his expert diagnosis. He popped open his trunk and poured water in my radiator while at the same time mildly berating me on the importance of car up-keep. It was an ungodly soggy day. I wasn’t overly concerned for my safety since I was on a major thorough-fare and I wasn’t alone in case the driver got any funny ideas, but I was guarded nonetheless. After my car maintenance lecture and a couple of gallons of water later, the cabbie and I were both on our separate ways with only a smile and a heart-felt thanks exchanged.

The second time my engine sputtered to a halt in Philcoa on my way to UP for my first class. Two traffic policemen on motorbikes went to my rescue. Like the cabbie, I only got a lecture on being a wiser motorist but forgiven for my ignorance since I was a young woman with nary a clue on car trouble-shooting. One astutely poured water for me while the other directed traffic build-up. Two tow-trucks cruised by but Pour Water Officer told them off. Tense I was since these are policemen and in our sick-sad world of course, cannot be trusted. But apart from an occasional glance on exposed cleavage, they sent me on my way without hassle. No rewards, no nothing. Just two civil servants doing their job. Incredible? There’s more.

Last night a tall young man came up to us in Glorietta 4. “Are you watching Dawn of the Dead?” he asked. We nodded yes. “You want tickets? We can’t use these and they’re not refundable. We have to be somewhere in a few minutes.” My boyfriend took the tickets and inspected them. Yep, same date, right time, legit tix they were. He reached into his pocket to pay the young man, “You have change? I don’t have smaller bills.” Tall Young Man beamed a toothy smile and said ”OK lang sige sa inyo na,” then quickly hurried back to his waiting girlfriend. We couldn’t believe our luck. Who gives away freebies these days? Mistrustful we were all through dinner and coffee. Come screening time we were half-expecting the tickets to be declared unacceptable by the movie ushers. But we were motioned in without trouble. Yep, someone had honestly given away movie tickets.

Moments like these one marvels at little signs of goodness in people. Yup, even here in our dirty-ugly city of Manila. Moments like these one realizes there’s hope yet.

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