If Manila has Quiapo, I’d like to think Quezon City has Cubao. While their histories are quite different, with Quiapo primarily steeped in its city square and the imposing Quiapo church, both share a similar sense of chaos and subsequent amalgamation brought about the spectrum of commerce which is behind the pulse of its streets.
In Cubao, just like much of Manila’s old downtown district, the streets and pavements are infested by sidewalk vendors. And just like Quiapo, two major religious groups find confluence in this pedestrian economy. Muslims and Christians are beside each other, in haphazardly built wooden stalls along walkways and footbridges, selling all sorts of items: a bewildering assortment of clothes and garments at incredible bargain price; cheap toys, cheap watches, home and office supplies; the obligatory street food of varying smells and unclean preparations; a myriad of fake gadgets and their accessories – chargers, headphones, speakers. The commerce is casual. Too casual in fact you may find yourself in the path of a complete stranger who suddenly offers you an iPhone from his pocket – more than likely stolen – at prices Greenhills could only dream of matching.
Fear – even adrenaline – runs subtly in the narrow, dusty streets of Cubao. Apart from your random guy selling fake or stolen smartphones, the evening casts a seediness on the district not even the bright lights of a more upscale Araneta Center can hope to cover. Cubao, after all, is a major transportation hub. Two train lines have their stations strategically positioned and connected to shopping malls. Jeepneys servicing commuters to and from suburban Quezon City as well as the Eastern fringes of the capital region choke Aurora Boulevard. Express vans have their own overcrowded terminals in Cubao too, squeezing between the large provincial bus terminals Cubao is known for. And of course, the buses plying EDSA stop in the hustling, and bustling district, taking in a spill over of commuters who cannot fit in the MRT, and leaving thick, black smog in the air typical of the unpleasantness of Philippine public transportation. There are quite literally thousands of people making stops and intervals, taking switches and detours.
And where there is a good crowd, there is often crime. Petty thieves are ready to snatch the bags of the unassuming and ignorant. Inside public transport, pickpockets manoeuvre their hands stealthily inside a sleepy commuter’s pocket. There are more frightening dangers too: men in groups preying on lone men and women; syndicates and their fraudulent businesses and customs; the occasional corrupt policeman who, in a bad day, may suddenly arrest or pull you over, to simply extort. Those who have lived long enough in the capital city understand urban perils, and know the precautions – carrying dummy mobile phones, dressing down, taking a taxi instead of a jeepney – necessary to avoid falling into the criminal traps that can occasionally cost one his life too.
Just the same, as a transportation hub, Cubao is a popular and convenient meeting point for eyeballs or friendly rendezvous, business dealings and one-night trysts. Cheap motels and their fevered neon lights abound in the area, offering room rates hoping to attract anyone, who in spite of libido still possess good grace to look for privacy for their coital engagements. Run down discotheques from decades past still get their crowd, although sitting next to whorehouses, it’s not hard to imagine they have also turned to offering sexual escape. There are spas dotting the area, most of which are really spakols catering to men both gay and straight, getting loyal patrons to shell out good money for a massage and a happy ending.
With the heavy cloak of night, pimps come out like bats, approaching passerby to make their invasive offers. I remember as a university student, walking along one of the dimly lit streets of Cubao, when a woman casually approached me and two male classmates, and with such nonchalance asked us “Babae, three-hundred” (a woman for three-hundred pesos). I looked to one of the entrances of the dilapidated building a few feet from where we were standing, and about five women – most of whom looked underage – were sitting and waiting for a customer, dressed (or hardly dressed) in revealing clothes, and chain-smoking the night away. My classmates and I looked at each other, grinned at the apparent cavalier offer from the pimp, and politely declined.
There are pockets of Cubao forgotten, businesses ranging from barbershops to tailoring shops, Christian bookstores to hardware stores, that appear unfazed by the conflicts of the surrounding, and unperturbed by the searing pollution. In these shops, time seems to have stopped, and the world outside is the same as the world humanity has always belonged to.
Nearby the seemingly safer and insulated core of the area, and surrounding the iconic Araneta Coliseum, there are interesting spaces which counteract the weight of Cubao’s darker sides. Cubao X is a refuge from the hard sensory bombardment typifying much of the district. A stone’s throw away from Gateway Mall, the area is a quaint, small-town looking world of its own built on what was formerly known as the Manila Shoe Expo. Apart from its weekend flea markets and tempting thrift stores, there are number of bars, restaurants, art galleries, and shops which attract the more artistic – and yes, even hipster – crowd. The establishments are built in a short and narrow U-shaped road along General Romulo Avenue, making it easy to discover in a day the seeming oasis of cool against the grainy and dusty Cubao.
The contrast between the upscale Araneta Center and its dilapidated surroundings make the crowd in Cubao as diverse as the city’s population. The wealthy flock to Gateway Mall to shop in upscale stores like Rustan’s, or join the middle class to watch basketball games and concerts in the Big Dome. Farmer’s Market, one of the better wet markets in the metro, is a destination for anyone regardless of social class. Although not exactly a farmer’s market as it name implies, the place remains a vital shopping destination for those looking to get the country’s best – from an assortment of meats to seafood, vegetables to flowers. People from all walks of life fill the other malls (SM Cubao and Ali Mall) too, crowding the vastly improved pavements of the Araneta Center, and making their way to all sorts of sales, weekend markets, or ukay ukay hunts.
What makes Cubao different from Quiapo is that people come here mostly for secular reasons. Its economy is not built on pilgrims flocking to a church. Movement, more specifically people’s movement, has allowed the district to establish itself as some sort of halfway house for everyone. For people going to work, going home, or looking to be busied, this schizophrenic district is a point, a pit stop, but never necessarily the real destination. Beyond the movement are the motives, most of which are practical enough to fuel the frenzied pace of Cubao.
One may argue that the Araneta Coliseum is a pilgrimage sight of sorts, but now more than ever, there is more to Cubao than sports and entertainment. There’s always something hanging in the air. And to me, it’s simply limbo.
When I find myself stuck in traffic along the EDSA underpass, or making my way across footbridges, or covering my nose from the searing pollution or the stench of dried urine, there’s always the sensation I am displaced, as if my own motives have been sucked by the gritty urban design (or lack thereof) of a place in the metro that’s turned itself into some parallel universe. Although I rush walking its disconnected avenues, or steady my pace inside the cool, glitzy malls, there is urgency in my movement, if not in the blood circulating in my body – almost like prayer.
But prayer is not the currency in Cubao. Ephemeral dreams are.