The streets aren’t the same anymore. People wear blank faces behind a covering behind a scratched-up plastic sheet. Shoulders no longer touch. Instead, a film of plastic on both sides restrict bodies to a defined space, preventing the dance that goes with the tricycle or jeepney’s stop-and-go motions. Sometimes the divider would show a job ad from a local call center. Those smiling faces posing in front of a gaussian blurred garden, for some reason. A garden, is not where call center agents work. At the heat of high noon, they exit their buildings still wearing their IDs behind thick, sometimes fur-lined sweaters. They hail a jeepney like clockwork, oblivious to third world temperatures, so out of it. Corporate life may not be as free and fair-weathered as working in a garden.
Inside a speeding jeepney, the world blurs. Pigeons waddle in pedestrian lanes, signs of homes and lots for sale increase in presence, businesses close, a commuter squints to see the signboards, some blue-uniformed man holds a stick—to enforce social distance or to use as weapon when needed? I decide both when I find droves of them brandish the same institutionally-issued stick. But why give sticks when others are wielding long arm weapons publicly, near a mall for some reason. This sight is so common where I live that I forget it is not normal. Mindanao is romanticized with its relentless absence of peacetime, a stereotype of nothing but conflict in cities apparently covered in dust. It makes anyone angry. But there's truth where patterns lie. In other travels it was told that recent attacks are rooted not in correcting historical injustices but in greed and power-seeking. Mindanao is at war with itself.
The roads are broken, being broken, break—and some work has gone on for so long whole ecosystems thrive in their stagnant canal waters. Public buildings are rising after another. Some finally being completed after a long quiet. All this could have been less sinister if it occurred at another point in time. These developments are as loud and deliberate as the machines that whir to toil suspiciously when people are looking.
When I began to go out again, I’d talk to taxi drivers. I was on my way home when curfew was about to descend. He said he would close the day with debt than income again, and again, and again since all this began. The dignity of self-reliance was a principle he wanted to hold on to, but became harder to afford.
Since last year, I routinely checked the city government’s page for official updates. I know now that people are angry, when they weren’t before. Before, they were more thankful and hopeful, now they’re seeking rice, vitamins, that their electricity not be suddenly cut off in the middle of all this. Now they’re demanding, questioning, complaining, disappointed, frustrated, sarcastic, hungry. Hungry and angry. All this anyone can read publicly.
I love to commute, even when it’s difficult. The small acts of kindness among fellow commuters is what I miss seeing after staying home for most of the days. Now, there’s an air so thick you could almost see it. Passing through people and plastic. In between busted-up roads, construction workers, drivers, No Work, No Pay laborers, corporate employees whose work never stopped since. Nothing is the same, and try as they might on their own, I wonder if it is objectively enough.
I think about the small objects, the large objects, things seen and unseen and know, as the world should by now, that it’s the things we can’t immediately see, we should be worrying about.
Whenever I’m in sacred ground, I always offer a coin and a piece of a valuable item in exchange for safety, and some small wishes. But always, the spirits ask for blood—as they do, and should—so later in the day I find myself scraped, with a blood clot, or a bitten tongue. The spirits are alive and well where they always have been. And why forests should be protected for all the seen and unseen that reside within.
Here’s my website, ten years on, taking inspiration from the colors of the forest, in the hope that the next decade on will find my work at peace and the spirits at ease.
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