A Street Observation by Clinton Palanca from The Likhaan Anthology of Philippine Literature in English There are some people who say that, in order to understand a country, one should not rush about visiting endless museums and monuments, but simply sit quietly with a drink and allow the country to come to you. I think this is a good idea, but only for a certain type of country. I would agree that the essence of Paris is to be found sitting on a terrace with a cup of coffee. But what about Manila? Where would you sit quietly with a drink? For that matter, is there anywhere that’s quiet in Manila?
I think that if you are a foreigner and wish to understand the soul of the city, you should hire a car and drive around for a while. This is, after all, how most Manilans spend much of their lives: those you aren’t examining the blank faces of the row of passengers seated opposite them in the Jeepney are most likely to be found staring at the backside of another vehicle. The first lesson to be learned if one plans to stay in Manila for some time is how to do various things while inching your way through traffic: reading the ewspaper, clipping your nails, transcribing Beowulf.
There is so much we take for granted about our roads that causes foreigners to balk up when they first arrive. I had a highly entertaining discussion on the subject a few days ago with U, who is among other things, a foreign semiotician relentless in his attempt to interpret Philippine culture. One of the many things that frazzled him when he first tried driving in Manila was the apparent superfluity of the white stripes on the road. In Italy, he reported, vehicles actually attempted to stay between the white stripes.
We all expressed polite surprise and told him the truth: in Manila, the stripes are there to help you drift across the road more effectively, allowing you to gauge the distance between the zero back-log paraphernalia on one side, the bus picking up passengers on the other, and the spare tire sitting complacently in the middle of the road directly in front of you. One of his rueful frustrations struck me as particularly interesting. In London, people might give the address “18 Sidney Road, Highgate, London” and expect callers to find it.
No one here in his right mind would give an address like “32 Basilio Street, Quezon City, Metro Manila” and expect someone to find it. Filipino directions go something like this: “Go straight along New York until the second Petron, then turn right, When you see the big intersection, Just go straight but be careful of the policeman who are waiting to catch you. Then you’ll get to a Junction with a construction on one side and a Dunkin Donuts on the other side. Turn left and go straightuntil you see Andoks lechon manok.
Stop and get me one if you have time. Turn left again until you see a large, beautiful white house with Corinthian pillars and a black iron gate on the left. That isn’t mine. Count seven houses down; it’s a green gate. ” Those are the only sort of directions that I understand, and which drives foreigners like Ubaldo mad. “It’s so linear! If I miss one of these landmarks, I’m lost. Besides, how many Andoks are there in the city? ” We challenge him to come up with a more effective way of giving directions in a city that largely does not have street signs.
And even when the street signs are there, they often don’t correspond to the gure out where a certain Arnaiz Street, where Powerbooks was going to open, could possibly be. “I always thought that Powerbooks was going to be on Pasay Road,” she said. I shrugged. “So did l. Well, let’s try to find the street. ” We asked around. No one in Makati knew where Arnaiz Street was. We eventually found Powerbooks by accident;; and it was, as I believed, on Pasay Road. To this day, I still haven’t managed to find this mysterious Arnaiz Street. Another interesting exercise in frustration is actually trying to use a map in Manila.
While in other cities, the roads are relatively obedient, and conform to what is expected of them on the map, here you will find that they are under water, have suddenly been replaced by a basketball court, or have disappeared altogether. It’s a variation on the Borges tale: except that in this case, the cartographer goes off and draws another city altogether, tangentially related in a vague manner to Manila. It’s also a wonderful metaphor for how our city works: rarely have I seen theoria and praxis so widely divergent: lived reality and described reality are miles apart.
To continue the subject of driving: Does anyone really take the road test before getting one’s license? Is the fast lane really faster? One can expand this endlessly. How true is it that the Philippines is the third largest English-speaking country in the world? That our populace is one of the most educated in the world? That we are repressed Catholics? I don’t think this means that the Filipinos are schizophrenic, or liars, or have a hard time living up to their own picture of themselves. But they do tend to set up a dichotomy between the lived orld and the world of the text, which tends to be seen as “other”.
Parenthetically, it is interesting to note that for many Filipinos, the lived world exists in Tagalog, and the textual, official world exists in English. This official world does not, however, exist as some sort of Platonic realm; it often serves a purpose in the lived world: it is appropriated into it, as for example, the policeman who uses the official rules to extort a bribe from you. The relation between the two is not so much a correspondence, the way it would be in Europe or the States as a dialectic nor do
Filipinos seem in any way put out by this discrepancy, perhaps because they have never believed in a singular reality anyway. The lessons that the streets can teach foreigners about Filipinos and us about ourselves are numberless: one can work out an entire epistemology and metaphysics, even an ontology, Just from the way we get from one point to another. In is it to be found the microcosm of our existence, the understanding of the very nature of our relationship with reality. Then again, maybe IVe Just spent far too much time in traffic for my own good.