10. Life As We Know It

  1. 01. Giving It Away
  2. 02. Mind Games
  3. 03. Customer Service
  4. 04. Getting Down to Business
  5. 05. …And Not a Drop to Drink
  6. 06. The Commission
  7. 07. Service!
  8. 08. Instant Celebrity
  9. 09. The Pinoy Diet
  10. 10. Life As We Know It
  11. 11. Doctors’ Borders
  12. 12. Poor, Poorer, Poorest
  13. 13. Half Empty
  14. 14. Me and My Leg
  15. 15. Always Be With You
  16. 16. Going Underground
  17. 17. Decisions, Decisions
  18. 18. I Shall Depart
  19. 19. A Volcano within a Volcano
  20. 20. A Nod and a Smile
  21. 21. Not Fighting City Hall
  22. 22. Stasis in Places
  23. 23. Fond Farewells
  24. 24. Parting Shots

Adjusting to an unfamiliar place is never easy. This is especially true when reality is delivered in a relentless sensory onslaught such as Quezon City. As you may have gleaned, Frank and I have been struggling to adjust. Sometimes there seems no respite from ugliness, some of it subtle and frustrating, other bits overt and horrifying.

We have the luxury of taking our stresses out on each other. Each festival of bickering or outright argument has, so far, resolved into a more level-headed recognition that we are each experiencing the same strains. I could not have survived this on my own. It is difficult to see how anyone could.  A younger, single man might have sought solace in a range of tempting tonics and strange salves, possibly with favourable effect — but more probably not.

As for us, we are not about to throw in the towel, either on our assignments or each other. The options do come up, though. I am thankful to know our assignments will end long before our relationship does.

Occasionally, I benefit from a fit of grace that allows me to put things in perspective. In these too-rare moments I can see that Quezon City’s overwhelmingness stems not from it being new to me, but from my being new to it.

There’s nothing new to me about rubbish in the streets — few streets on Earth are as grubby as those of the Boston I knew in the eighties.

There’s nothing new to me about violence and drugs in the streets. Crack dealers ran a brothel in the basement of our Fenway condominium. There were several murders within a couple blocks of the place, and innumerable thefts, assaults, rapes, you name it.

There is nothing new to me about people defecating on the streets.  One can’t count the drunks pissing (or worse) in the doorways of my beloved St Kilda. (Most are not Olympic swimmers, alas.)

Is crowded, hot, slow, unreliable and uncomfortable public transport new to me? Petty crime? Rats? Cockroaches? Bad plumbing? Lousy internet? Nope, nuh-uh, been there, done that, nothing new to see here.

There is nothing new to me about the arrogant rich blaming the poor, even mocking the poor, for existing. Twenty years ago I would walk past the begging indigent shivering in the snow. At best my contribution would be an angry scowl, at worst, scathing sarcasm. “Spare change?” they’d ask; “No thanks, I’ve got plenty.” I might reply.

What an asshole.

That was home. I knew the rules. I knew the reasons. I knew the system. I knew my place. I’d earned that birthright. None of it was confronting. It just was.

It is easy to see Quezon City as an extraordinary place. It is the hub of development, communications and governance for a hundred million people — “where the action is”, as my boss puts it. It is at once confronting, overwhelming, corrupt, altruistic, and passionate.

Dismounting my high horse, I see Quezon City is an ordinary place — where hundreds of thousands know the rules, the reasons, the system, their place.They don’t find it confronting, it is just home — and not all that different to my home.

An integral part of my health regimen is a daily jog through heavy traffic in polluted air of hazardous quality at temperatures around 28C and 100% humidity. You may consider such physically strenuous activity inadvisable for a stout fifty-five year old. Be that as it may, I find it necessary to temper my passions, such as running amok screaming about the state of things.  Best to save it for this blog.

After much careful scouting, I have settled on a regular jogging route, mostly on back streets with relatively light traffic, few angry dogs, and only occasional patches of aromatic squalor. The locals along the way are beginning to expect us on our early morning jaunts. Some are more enthusiastic each day with their “Good morning, sir!”, but many now regard us with an over-the-shoulder glance. Even the dogs are resigned to our presence, no longer giving chase with bared fangs gurgling in saliva growled to a froth. One construction worker, too clever by half, has taken to shouting “Shamu!” at me from his third story perch, apparently mistaking this great white for a killer whale.

“Scouting” is an apt description for exploring our district, the main drag of which is Timog Ave. The streets are named after twenty-three Boy Scouts killed in a plane crash on the way to the 11th World Scout Jamboree in 1963. I think that’s a nice memorial.  Surely it is better to name streets after hopeful innocents than jaded politicians of dubious accomplishment. Quezon City is rife with streets begging for a name —near us there lingers KG St, KH St, KL St, K1 St, K2 St, K3 St…— all presumably awaiting suitable tragedies.

The wet season is well and truly upon us, although so far we have dodged the typhoons. We are assured our luck will not last, as the wet season still has a full four months to go. I used to think there was a limit to how wet a person could get,but recent experience has thrown that into question. Even on the driest days, I am utterly drenched from head to foot three times before ten o’clock in the morning, four times if it is raining. There’s the jogging (perspiration) drenchment, the subsequent cold shower drenchment, the walk-to-work (perspiration) drenchment, and if I am lucky enough to get caught in a refreshing downpour, the rain drenchment.

Some mornings it is raining so hard the eyes of Noah’s giraffes peer in our apartment windows. On those occasions, instead of swimming down one scout and up the next, I will use the treadmill in the air conditioned fitness room on the twenty-fifth floor. Along with the open air swimming pool, it is a sanity-saving amenity. The air can be surprisingly fresh up there. It offers some interesting, if not pretty, views. Sometimes I can make out Manila Bay through the smog.

Not many of the building residents make use of the pool or gym.  The floor has free wifi, which attracts the building’s twenty-somethings. What few teenagers there are like the gym, and the more numerous little kids love the pool. All of them scatter like cockroaches when Frank or I show up. If we jump in the big pool, all the toddlers flee, even if they are in the separate kiddy pool. Really, if I go to use the treadmill and there’s a fifteen-year-old lifting weights, he will immediately leave the fitness room. (One waited in the hallway until I finished, then returned.) And the twenty-somethings can’t find the door fast enough when one of us merely walks through on the way to the gym or pool. I don’t know if this is out of misguided respect, or, more likely, those under thirty find us over fifty a real drag.

They are building a twin to our high-rise, with only about ten meters between our Symphony Tower #1 and what I must assume will be Symphony Tower #2. The fitness room provides an excellent vantage point to follow the progress on the mirror-image building, as well as another dozen apartment towers under construction nearby.

Commonly, construction labourers are expected to live on-site for a week at a time. More than one has been startled to waken on his twenty-fifth floor hammock to find Shamu jogging towards him on a treadmill, not ten meters away. For my part, I am distressed to watch labourers working without benefit of a harness or even a railing, leaning over the abyss, manually tugging ropes attached to heavily laden buckets. Sometimes I find the risks they take unwatchable, and I have to walk away, cutting my workout short. I imagine they think I am as crazy as I think they are.

It isn’t just the labourers who live “on-site” for a week at a time. Professionals, executives and managers don’t live in hammocks on dusty, open twenty-fifth floors of our unfinished towers, though. Many of them live in places like our postage stamp sized apartment, or even smaller. They escape the grime of the city each weekend to their true homes in beautiful far-flung places well outside Manila. I hope to see some of those places soon.

It partly explains why the building’s amenities are so busy on a weeknight, but sparsely used on the weekends. Sunday is especially quiet, as the full-time resident families spend the morning in church, and the afternoon at restaurants. We have learnt that Sunday afternoon is no time to go out to eat. The restaurants are mayhem on the scale of Mother’s Day, with screaming uncontrolled children ruling the roost. Best to sit by the pool in the relatively fresh air of the twenty-fifth floor.

The streets of our neighbourhood vary tremendously in look and feel from one to the next. Some patches are quite corporate. For example, both major broadcast networks have their headquarters here, so there’s plenty of glitzy activity around, but on the street it is mostly security, street hawkers and star-struck teeny-boppers screaming. Both networks are only a block from an informal settlement (“shanty town” is politically incorrect), with DIY buildings of cinder block and corrugated tin teetering five or six stories tall, thriving street commerce, and families sleeping in shifts. A block further might be a gated street, with townhouses and mansions, guards and barbed-wire topped walls disguising lush green oases of upper middle class family life. Then there’s the streets of solidly middle-class apartment blocks and row houses, then maybe a boulevard with hotels, restaurants, supermarkets, nightclubs and such.

Much of this is visible from our flat. On completion six years ago, the Symphony Tower building managers must have decided that factory-cleaned windows were good enough. They haven’t cleaned the windows since. Our tiny apartment came happily endowed with many filthy windows that open only a wrist’s width. I devised a rope and pulley system with a squeegee that enabled me to remove most of the accumulated grime.

It is amazing the difference a clear view can make.