For someone who has never travelled, Manila means to me more than anything else. It is the only city I have known. While I’ve escaped the contradicting sophistication of this urban scale every once in a while – off to ancestral homes in the province, or in short trips to nearby coasts and towns – it is the city I return to, her plagues I offer sacrifices for, her hidden beauty I am most in love with. Those who have been privileged to see far-off lands inevitably compare the illustrious dreams which make modern metropolises to the nightmarish disorder and chaos of Manila. My birthplace does not seem to, and perhaps, never will compare to the measurable progress of other great cities. Devoid of any grandeur, with one foot caught in its schizophrenic colonial past, and another eager to finally abandon her roots, Manila’s grey and grit appears unliveable, condemned to a fate we think we know.
Yet the same violation of the senses which Manila offers is the same sweet grief that compels me to write, forces me to attempt to capture eloquently the vivid, distressing, and encompassing improvisations of life. Manila’s contradictions are mine, her sorrows and victories, unashamedly shared with irreverence whenever I dare put into words the indescribable. This connection must not be mistaken as a disguise for the city’s shortcomings, which is no fault of hers. Nor should it be construed as turning a blind eye to the plight of the millions who call the capital, as home. I have hated Manila as much as I have loved it; I have hated it enough to think I must escape it, can escape it, will escape it. Her landscapes are changing and unchanging, assaulting the senses by depriving it, or immersing it in the excesses of urban discontent. Shoving you inside cramped trains. Pulling you to the darkness of crime. Disappointing you with its blatant disregard for rules. I hate it enough to make my teeth grind, show my bones through the wounds I’ve suffered.
But this city is the only one I know. And it is the only certainty apart from love (and even this certainty over love is prone to my second guessing) that I hold on to. Without it, I cannot see myself capable of truly understanding the life of letters, nor see myself struggling to pursue a life of the mind. Manila confounds logic, pushing you not just to think or rely on human reason – so vainly limited yet so vainly tested too – but also think with the heart. Rhymes scatter Manila’s dilapidated edges; verses abound its economic disparity. Souls and the soulless roam her haphazardly built avenues, and fleeting dreams coat the glitter of her more modern corners. With so much going on (much of it against the law of man and nature), shouldn’t writing be the most reasonable step to surviving, especially if one can afford to (a consequence of our socio-political condition)? Shouldn’t words be turned into tools for survival? Shouldn’t men, especially those who have come to know only one city, be equipped with the joys of almost immortalizing their deeply impressed memories of the city? For no one born in and of Manila comes out unscathed; no one is capable of disowning her mother, no matter how grey and how bitter the milk we suck from her ashened breasts. Manila always marks us as her own, regardless where we desire to be burned or buried. The only fate she leaves us to change with our own devices is the life that spans between our first cry and our final sigh.