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Recycled Culture

13 August, 2008 (12:42) | Travelogue


Part of the Manila Skyline sits idly in the mid-day heat by the Pasig River.
For more heat stifled pictures of the Philippines, click here.

NOTE: This entry was written the afternoon of August 11
during a two day stop in Manila. Because my laptop ran out of
batteries attempting to get a signal in the Bangkok airport,
I didn’t have time to publish it until now.

The shadow of the can is unavoidable. At this time of evening, the dying sun is at exactly the right angle to spray it on the wall opposite the open window. It looks like a black square with a slight curve at the top, but I’ve stared at that can every time I passed through the doorway. It’s green, and covered in Arabic. There’s no English on it; no sell-by dates or other numbers. It’s obviously been out here a while based on the flimsy layer of rust that rings the top. The can itself is empty, save a touch of water sprayed into it by the daily rains. What it housed once is a mystery to me.

I’m sure the can’s gotten good use. After all, Jhoan’s sink is lined with old 1.5 liter bottles now filled with water for when the apartment runs out in the early afternoon. Even San Miguel Beer arrives with a piece of paper towel around its open neck with which to wipe the rust off, as every bottle is cleansed and reused to save production cost. Denise once commented about her coke bottle having a bottle date in 1997 before finding out this fact. It’s not unsafe. It’s just cheaper, faster and easier than melting them down and remaking them like they do with aluminum cans.

Above the can’s shadow is a strange wavy shape ever changing in the breeze. Unlike the can, it’s mutable and fickle, belying in its subtle shape the image of clothes strung on hanging looped on a wire. The wire is a scant inch or two from the ceiling and casts no shadow, allowing the amorphous blob of cotton the blend with the top of the shadow.

I probably should be reading right now, but the heat is so stifling that even the act of holding a book in front of makes me sweat. My fingers smudge the long dried ink with my body’s equivalent of natural freon. I have hours left to lie here in the heat and wait. Manila, this time around, is merely a stopover.

I roll over, lifting myself off the ground to avoid any ants. Crouched and hunched forward, I open the fridge and stick my face as close as I can while I examine the various items not meant for my ingestion. I know I’m welcome to the leftover chicken adobo that Jessie cooked up last night, but I’m hardly in the mood to eat. Every time I sit up, I feel woozy and light headed, though I can’t decide if it’s the heat, dehydration, or some sickness I’ve picked up on the flight. Water would be a good idea.


A cat takes shelter from the heat under a cannon at Fort Santiago.

There’s a bag of rice in the bottom bin of the fridge. It wasn’t there until last night when Jhoan found ants in it. She and Jessie argued momentarily, but there was never any question of throwing it out. Disposing of that much rice would be wasteful, ants or no ants. I can’t decide if I agree or disagree. After all, I am the human goat, willing the pick off the mold and eat nearly anything not liquefied with mold. The motto here is “sayang” (sai-yahng), which is the noun for waste or the entire expression for don’t waste. Personally, I like to imagine Samuel L. Jackson scowling at me and saying, “Sayang, bitch!” any time there’s only a little left and I’m not in the mood to finish.

The fridge squeaks closed as I slide back into the chair in front of my computer. There’s a 1 liter bottle of Red Iced Tea sitting empty on the edge of the desk. I downed the whole thing in a matter of minutes earlier that morning. I was overcome by thirst, the bottle caving in as I sucked every last drop from its mottled interior. I sprayed the room with condensation as the intense suction evaporated with the last of the liquid inside. “Don’t drink the water from the tap,” Jhoan told me, not knowing the mass of temptation coursing through my body where water should be.

I flip on the television. There’s a rebroadcast of last night’s USA versus China basketball game. I watched it live. At least I watched the first three quarters live before turning it off in disgust. I like to win as much as the next American, but to win so handily is merely a travesty of the sport. China even held them neck and neck until the last few minutes of the first half. Then it all came tumbling down. I change the channel.

Filipino TV is just like American TV in the 80s. They have their variant on the Price is Right, a bunch of soaps, and a few imported cartoons similar to Transformers and Voltron. The women look straight off of Telemundo, and the guys are either pudgy and nonthreatening or chiseled and masculine. I switch it off as I come back around to the Olympics repeat.

Slowly, I close my eyes, the red of the bright sun shining on the white walls still burned into my retina. I can hear the sound of children playing and cars honking. Occassionally, I hear the ice cream tricycle ride by, its pedal powered jingle not even a jingle so much as a random collections of tones followed by a second of awkward silence whose only purpose is to throw off the groove. A few of the mothers natter in the background in Tagalog, though I never recognize any of the words. If I try and decipher it, I end up sitting there trying to figure out how they pronounce their half tones, of which “ng” and a weird half “L”, half “R” prominently feature.

The bouncing ball I hear is painted like a basketball. I don’t know why. Despite its orange veneer and black lines dividing it nearly, it clearly has the consistency of a volleyball. I’ve heard stories of Africans playing basketball with rocks. Hell, I used to play with tennis balls when I had nothing else, but to create this toy, falsifying its purpose with a strange mask, simply seems strange. I can hear the oblong imperfections in every bounce.

I briefly contemplate walking to the mall and buying a real basketball for the boys, but I tell myself it’s too hot to go out. I know this is a lame excuse, so I begin to search for others. These boys don’t have new things. They might not understand what to do with a new ball. After all, Denise kept her new shoes at the head of her bed, afraid to wear them and ruin their newness. But this isn’t a good excuse either.

Few people outside my immediate family ever called me a spoiled child, but I was certainly spoiled. When I began to take stock of what’s truly important during high school, I began to realize how lucky I was. Daily, I grow more grateful for the gifts I’ve been given and luxuries I’ve enjoyed. Leaning on the windowsill and watching these boys take joy in this weak excuse for a basketball only hammers it home more.

As I’ve walked through the streets of the Philippines, I’ve passed beggars aplenty. Each is dirty, missing teeth or limbs, carrying babies. I’ve stalwartly stared ahead, shaking my hand and saying “wallai” as instructed. My heart breaks a little every time as well, but I would be broke fast if I listened to my heart all the time. In fact, that might just explain it.

“Do not give the beggars money,” Jhoan has told me. She claims they’re professionals, with cars parked around the corner, leaving their shoes and their nice clothes there for when they drive home to their mansions. I’ve heard the myth of the million dollar homeless man in the US. As far as I’m concerned, if it’s a myth in the US, then it must be a myth in the Philippines.

There are only three smells in the Philippines: good food, rotting food and exhaust. People walk around with handkerchiefs over their mouths and noses. They tie towels around their faces.  They wear medical masks, though that’s a rarity here since so few can afford a stylish medical mask. I, meanwhile, embrace the smells: from the sickly sweet fruit being sold so perfectly ripe, unlike anything in the states, to the rank rotting fish that overpowers entire streets and makes me throw up just a little in my mouth from the intensity alone.

It’s these things I’m traveling for. I’m searching for experiences that rip me out of my worldview. I’m seeking scents that shake reality from the clean and clear images I’m used to. I’m not sure what the outcome will be. I might become colder and more closed to the plights of man or I might become more open. I might find myself hiding in my material joys or appreciating them more.

The world is a great unknown and I’m in the midst of it.

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