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Image by Alexes Gerard
By Vartan Koumrouyan

In Manila, the author finds a a respite in the pursuit, a momentary abeyance of the floating substance of thought.

An overwhelming, one-body density of so many people at the airport, the promiscuity of the multitude that constituted one facet of Manila, that of families living together in over-crowded districts known as ‘barangay’. The density of the inhabitants in the narrow streets and alleys made these temporary shelters look like shrunken fabric for an oversized body in constant movement. The door opened to an invisible heat wall that clearly separated the air conditioned interior from the outside world, to the peculiar texture of Manila in the damp Pacific night and the accumulated heat in the atmosphere. It was the first welcoming sight, smell and sound that had no resemblance to anything known to me, no identifiable structure, composition or a particular reason, that I missed when I went back to Paris.

That there was a slack in the movements, a respite in the pursuit, a momentary abeyance of the floating substance of thought, escaping the gravity of an existential urge. Nothing mattered all of a sudden and problems had no relevance to the actual moment, as if a magical wand signaled shut the sliding doors behind me and left me standing for a moment absorbing what was happening in this far away land.

It was not the usual summer's heat, but the breathless air had a compressed effect to it, pressurized over a long period, impossible to escape. The overburdened quality of the damp smell of a confined area lacking ventilation of an open trap. Air that absorbed over many dry months the breath of the metropolis, a halitosis kind of air, mixed with jeepney sooth, the stagnant sea of Manila Bay, the maw of the sewers at the embouchure of the Pasig river, with theflotsam of rubbish in a mottled layer moving gently with the lazy movements of the swell, among the slimy rocks of the baywalk along Roxas Boulevard.

The knee high cement wall of the corniche was wide enough for people to sleep on, the young or middle aged who have learned to pick the best spots of shady patches next to a bench where they have settled on a cardboard or in a hammock tied to two coconut trees.

Some portions of the streets that did not benefit from the freshness of the shade, smelled of urine and melting tar on electric timber posts, in fusion with a whiff of the underground canals, wide maws designed to swallow sudden downpours of typhoon rains when the streets of Malate were flooded, or when during the dry season, a rotting odor emerged from corners where rubbish had been stuffed behind Malate Church and the pushcarts of the homeless. 

Here, what took place at dawn when I walked to the Yacht Club next morning, constituted the biggest surprise, as if I was seeing a reality of the world without embellishment, the barebones of the street and the square near the church, naked and plain misery reduced to normalcy and a fact of every day's life.

It was not the homeless families who lived there, but the way they adapted the street to their needs and surrendered wholeheartedly to their fate, with the possibility of a better life, a forbidden thought, as if being born in this condition was a hereditary flaw.

At night, a lively scene took place on Adriatico street with children on pushcarts, as white smoke of burning fat of makeshift barbecues wafted in the humid Pacific air and girlies cocktail bars smiled under colored spotlights and the kaleidoscope's dizzy swirl in the tempo of a repeated beat. 

What was also new was how far removed this seemed to be from the mainstream mode of happiness and contentment, the wealth isolated from the momentum of overcrowded communities in Metro Manila, the suburbs divided into portions spreading out from the historic Intramuros Fort Santiago where Jose Rizal was imprisoned, a showcase of  modernity exposed near historical architecture of the city which was then the seat of the the Spanish administration, the golf course surrounding the ramparts with its tightly clipped lawn and manicured footpaths, espousing the crenelated thick walls designed to protect it from invaders coming from the sea, to the new buildings a generation later now falling in disrepair having served their time, the city spreading to Malate and Makati with taller structures and sleek geometric shapes dissolving when the sun winked in the morning smog. 

Every epoch added a new layer to it, from ground floor constructions to two storey dwellings and more imposing malls near the Casino with its aura of corruption, contraband and gambling inherited from the time when the going was good. All the old tenements, the peeling cement, the rusty pillars, torn barb wires, the overall decrepitude marking the passage of time in the actual abandon, to the fresh air of the underground parking on Del Pilar street near Malate Church when the traffic of jeepneys accelerated, drowning the preacher's voice and the statue of Saint Malate, dressed like a doll in a frilled robe with tiny sparkling sequins, parted lips, as if it was speaking.

Everything seemed melancholic in its Pacific patina, dilapidated state of half ruin and neglect,  as if the process has not finished yet, a unique "étoffe" seized to standstill between two stages, retained the remaining hues of a bygone era like old chintz or a China porcelain cracks, a witness of a different time when the day held some hope for the future. 

I would sit in the church until the priest appeared from a side door and came near the altar walking slowly, holding a tray covered in a white cloth in front of him as an offering he deposited on the tabernacle and turned to face us, the few of the congregation scattered on the benches, and stood there a moment to concentrate on what mattered, a redeeming silence in the dim interior light and blurred corners of the ceiling adumbrate on the sticky pews, the paintings of saints, the votive candles, the scraping of feet entering from the garden, the neon lights on the street, red, blue and green, blinking every other second, sliding on the pending fronds. Even the peeling cement and fading paint had a charming authenticity, the rust eating the steel bars of the pillars where it oozed out melting like vanilla ice cream. This was along the wall on Mabini Street where the homeless lived and the scavengers carried with them wives and children to the proximity of the church and the security of the dim lights of the lanterns, or in the dark stretch after the Sohotel, along the Manila Girls Nightclub.

Even the hard pressed shade on the ground gave the sensation of heat being removed from the air like a surrounding halo of freshness, dry parched dust in corners along Mabini street on some rare mornings when a soft breeze came from the bay at dawn, and the first daylight on Makati reflected silver patches in the whitening sky. The people, the weather, the streets, these old facades of ground floor buildings, the promenade on the bay, the salty taste of sweat on sultry Pacific nights, the foamy trickle in the gutter behind Pan Pacific Hotel, the banyan tree in the square with a soft cottony smoke in the hanging branches like entangled eiderdown in the pending roots, of street vendors selling contraband, sex tapes, handing out leaflets of girlie bars whispering the names of pills, strawberry taste condoms they claimed, items that suited the environment and the earthy smells of everyday, the urban pollution, the overwhelming traffic of jeepneys accelerating at the crossroads, steel and glass skyscrapers, swimming pools, gymnasiums and air conditioning systems to recycle the air.

Malay, Magellan, Descartes, Rizal asking emancipation from Mother Spain writing "Noli Me Tangere ", Touch Me Not, his correspondence with Blumentritt from Dapitan,  his liberal influence when he came from a rationalist tradition, the puzzle I tried to decipher during these endless nights jumping between centuries, skipping entire pans of history, to finally fall asleep exhausted at dawn when Rio, finding the door open, would wake me up to the tame and peaceful suburb, to the city hum reduced to a murmur of consent, the charcoal sketch of coconut trees on the sepia Manila Bay in shimmering lights on the murky waters like strings of fireflies glued all the way to the piers of the docks.

Image by Laura Chouette

Vartan Koumrouyan lives in Paris, France, Manila, and the island of Palawan, in the South China Sea Philippines. His work has been published in 'Tulatulahan.' He runs a YouTube channel called 'Palawan Jungle Days.'


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