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I never thought I’d grow up to develop a love-hate affair with Manila. When I was younger, I dismissed relatives who decided to stay “behind” in the provinces, often thinking to myself how unfortunate they were never to enjoy the capital’s train systems – the LRT at the time was clean, efficient, and less crowded – nor indulge in the “modern” leisures of upscale malls, al fresco dining, cultured pleasantries (theatre, museums, art exhibits) which only a city could afford. In my mind, my cousins from the province envied me, and I found comfort in that thought well enough it would put me to sleep.

Franco Levi, The Man Is Here

Leaving the city

Many of my cousins now live abroad, in cities not as swollen as Manila, New York, or Tokyo but in smaller metropolises of lesser known states and regions, some in countries I never imagined people would go to – Andorra, Samoa, and yes, even Ecuador. I, on the other hand, have been living in the same city for over two decades, and like many forgotten parts of the metro, my affections for Manila have been tainted by man-made infirmities.

Where once I would boast to cousins or even quietly to myself, of the latest behemoth of a skyscraper to pierce the capital’s crippled air, now an immediate doubt sets in while assessing the economic, and aesthetic purpose and value of an urban infrastructure project, second-guessing the politics and money involved in every development. Where once I hated the idea of living in the province, and could never imagine myself in a place without the newest comforts available to man, now I am quick to avoid crowded malls unless I want myself paralyzed with claustrophobia, or killed in a bourgeois stampede.

It does not help that our occasional, family vacation out of town would find me falling in love with the crisp, almost crystal clear air of the provinces. The more my family and I enjoyed daytrips to nearby provinces, the more I found the rural setting, lifestyle, and people more interesting. Far from the clutches of Manila, the innocence lost from years living in the city would return. Curiosity becomes abundant. Everything appears to be new. Nature itself has provided the entertainment. Her art exhibits are far more complex, and require subtler tastes. Her creations are sublime, and move not just the senses as we know it, but even the soul that putting it in words would simply render the living grandeur ineffective. The provinces, the real rural enclaves, are surrounded by refinements so simple it is easily taken for granted.

Franco Levi rural province

The rich soils of bucolic grounds entice me, and I always wonder how diverse tropical foliage can be a moving force on its own; how the simpler, stripped surroundings – free of steel and concrete – can provide the fertile setting for more contemplative endeavors. Of course, there are some worries in the rural landscape: procrastination, small-town chatter, meditation turning to laziness. But these matters can be easily resolved with the right company, or the right person.

Working has given me much to hope for in my desire to perhaps settle in rural surroundings. Almost two years of labor (mental for the most part, although the daily, rough commute could be considered work as well) have inspired me to set aside finances with the long-term goal of purchasing a plot of land outside Manila. The daily grind of the working world has also instilled in me a further reason to escape the city.

For good?

Perhaps not. This is after all, a love-hate affair with Manila. I cannot bite the hands of the city which has fed me for two decades now. I have no desire to leave her forever. How ungrateful I would be to believe I would be made better by country air and narrower roads. Putting such power in places is naive, and to a certain extent, dangerous. We are engaged to self-improvement by our own doing, not because we are of this world, or of another.

Perhaps, a weekend home would be the ideal compromise. Five days in the city, the province – which one I haven’t chosen yet – can have me in the weekends. And when I am no longer able to accept such rigours, maybe then I could retire in rural bliss, and still be kind enough to visit the almost insufferable city every once in awhile. Will there be a bountiful garden to sustain me? Will I learn to pick fresh produce in the market, and even more challenging, learn to prepare them into something edible? Will I have a room overlooking the town or the trees? Will I be able to sleep with the cicadas stirring and singing at night? It is far too early to tell. The possibilities are amusing, and the thought of my domestic improvements are delightful, but right now I at least owe Manila – my birthplace, my city, my joy and my suffering – the kindness of keeping my imaginations in check.