Richell’s smile was infectious, her hope audacious. The boy of Babhnan was in Manila, the pearl of the East, as they called it because of its strategic location in the Asia Pacific region. They were chatting in a yellowy darkness that reminded the boy of his village some 4,500 kilometers, two oceans and several seas away. The ambience was eerily similar, reminiscent of those 200 watt yellow bulbs that hanged precariously in decaying holders and gave a twinkling yellow light that sickened more than illuminating. They hanged on, nonetheless.
So did Richell, the bright and beautiful young girl. Sitting in the verandah in front of her room that she shared with seven others. All she had of her own was a bunker bed with no privacy other than a big and coarse curtain that could lock her 6 into 6 feet space out of others’ eyesight but could not stop noise, or even light from seeping in. Yet she laughed, and laughed a lot. She dragged the boy inside to have a ‘feel’ of her life and once inside, proudly showed him the teddy bear she had bought, no got as she corrected herself, a few days back. Her eyes twinkled when she talked of her dreams. She had no qualms against sharing them with me, a rank stranger until just half an hour ago.
Manila was going to be different, very different, the boy from Babhnan thought. He decided to give monuments a miss this time. He would meet people instead.
Richell’s dreams seemed so out of place in that dingy verandah.Yet,she had the courage to chase her dreams. The girls of his village would dare not, or they would be sacrificed at the altar of patriarchy for the ‘crime’.
His ride to their ‘home” had been tough and uneventful. Having decided to dump a cab ride, he had taken a bus followed by a signature Filipino Jeepney and then a ride in that claustrophobic tricycle that cages you on small shaded compartment attached to a motorcycle or a cycle. The route ran, almost along the seashore that defines the boundaries of Metro Manila, as the national capital region is known there. It passed by Freedom Islands, ironically named so, that are home to the boathouses and the skyscrapers coming next to it, which would gulp the boathouses soon. Notices are already out and served on them.
Richell’s journey was much longer and tougher. Masabate, the city she calls home, is not merely geographically distant from Manila, it is almost a different country, poorer and lacking of opportunities. But then, her old and ailing parents lived there, they still do, and it was there where she was pursuing her college degree in Information Technology. Ask her what brought her, then, here and what you get is another burst of laughter that could hardly conceal the pain seeping through her eyes. No work there, why else, she replies. Ask her about the IT course that she left midway and she points towards a roommate, she has an IT degree as well, no use. The roommate nods, giggles and then all of them burst into a collective laughter.
Laughter, the boy was soon to realize, is not born merely out of the sheer audacity of their hopes. It was their weapon too, to reassure them that they have not lost everything, The laughter and the hope kept them afloat in a country that alienates them from their own labour, from their own bodies. It is intoxicating. It gives them the delusion they need the most.
You have a boyfriend; the boy suddenly asked Richell and saw her blushing for the first time. The reply, hastily put together with an invitation to have dinner with the group, is a coy ‘not yet’.
The story was the same; be it Irene, a single mom. Or Maribel, a fisherwoman in ironically named Freedom Island. The government was trying to relocate them to mountains, she informed. And giggles, fisherfolk to mountains, the government got some good sense of humour!
And Leya, an activist. And Dayan, my colleague. Or Freddie, a vendor in the Rizal National Park. I have been living here since 1972, Freddie tells me. My wife died here, he adds. He had slept in the makeshift bed inside his stall ever since. Wanna try, he asks the boy. He readily agrees.
The boy did manage to go to some of the monuments, just for the pictures’ sake. And he stole a trip to Taal Volcano, a live one. The boy from the plains seeing the lava of a volcano! It is mere 100 kilometers away from Manila, and one thing you should not miss if you ever happen to be in Manila.
And of course there are more places, one of the most beautiful of them being Manila Bay walk. I have passed by many of them, but not quite visited. Just like locals who hardly wink at touristy places in their own cities. People there become far more important than them.
Richell’s laugh was the souvenir the boy brought back from Manila, a laughter so uncontrolled and unabashed. And her belief in the future. The audacity of that belief which can make anyone believe in humanity. Can we save the smile for our children, the boy asked himself. He had no answer!