Coming home

Sunday, May 11, 2008

I’m back in Manila after a little over a month in Sydney and upon arriving at my house and spending the first night here, I noticed myself going through it again — a depressing feeling coming over me. I’ve noticed this pattern occurring every time I come back to Manila: I return to the Philippines feeling disoriented and kind of  sad, like my heart and mind are forced  to be in two places.

While everything here is familiar, it is way too familiar. I am not talking of friends or relatives but the place in general. Nothing seems to change for the better. I think of the contempt that familiarity supposedly breeds as I see the decay and mayhem when I drive through different parts of the city. There is an inertia in this city that drags my spirit down as I see the soot on the buildings, the snarl of traffic, the general disorder that is the normal state of affairs here.

In many places, I see the classic sign of entropic decline, as if the city has stopped taking care of itself and is allowing itself to wither and disintegrate. I seriously ask myself if it is just my mood at the moment or if I have become that type of Filipino who one often meets abroad who does not see anything good in this country anymore.

I know the answer can’t be any of that because I know I do love this country. Perhaps it is the privilege of being able to travel a lot and live in another place and see how much more charming, benign and beautiful many cities are compared to Manila. If a few articles ago, I wrote about what I would do if I had the power to change things nationwide, this time I would like to indulge the idealist/control freak in me and ask questions and make suggestions on how things in Metro Manila can be made better in little and big ways. I write this without looking at the costs involved. All I know is that they will make this city so much more livable and esthetically pleasing. My suggestions:

1)  The MMDA should issue a directive that orders all structures, buildings and establishments along main roads to be freshly painted every five years and for their immediate surroundings to be kept sparkling clean. There must be a department or bureau that will issue esthetic guidelines to rethink or re-imagine Metro Manila and give the city character and a look that is positive. There are places in India, Israel, Greece and other countries where the building code stipulates the colors that every establishment must use. That’s not a bad idea to follow. If we have to give tax rebates for the city to get spruced up, let’s do it. But enforcement must be strict with heavy fines imposed for non-compliance.

2)  Re-zone the city so that commercial and residential areas are clearly separate.

3) Finally phase out jeepneys and old buses within a short period of time — no more than three years. They have had their glory days. It’s now time to modernize transportation so that there are less cars on the road. And more trains, please.

4) Make the main roads billboard-free. Many major cities in the world show off their city buildings, public art and architectural structures along their main thoroughfares, not display crass pictures of celebrities hawking products and services.

5)  Scrub the public walls and roads so that they look brighter. Put art in as many places as possible. One of the most amazing sights for me was seeing the Moscow subway for the first time in 1990. It was bedecked with chandeliers stripped from the palaces of the Czars when the Communists took over. It was also quite impressive to see big proletarian art decorating the underground corridors.

6)  Build bigger statues and monuments that people can actually mill around. Recently, I saw the new statues along Roxas Boulevard and I thought they were incredibly puny. Some of them were so tiny they were practically just life-sized representations of the people they honored. In effect, they projected a smallness, not the bigger-than-life greatness of the people they were intended to extol. It’s not hard to imagine that many of the statues go largely unnoticed by people passing by in their cars. And they are in areas so cramped, people can hardly congregate around them.

7)  The media should project the city and its people more realistically and with more dynamism. And they should feed the cultural soul of its citizens.

One of my pet peeves is FM radio in the Philippines, which seems quite divorced from its local setting in the way it conducts itself. FM radio stations should drop their emulation and adoration of the US formats and play more OPM, current and not-so-current favorites. And even better, the disc jockeys should stop putting on American accents and make us listeners feel like we are in America. It would be great if they put on a more local flavor. Listening to some of them makes my hair stand on end. The way they try so hard at sounding like their LA counterparts makes me (and a lot of people I know) cringe. The airwaves should express what we are as a people, not emulate our ex-colonizers!

8)  And can our TV newscasters please stop sounding like sensationalistic bad news bears? GMA-7’s Mike Enriquez and everyone at ABS-CBN sound like they are out to scare and terrify us. The whole siren-like, in-your-face approach to news seems primarily to elicit fear, panic and depression among viewers in place of simply informing them. I believe that more calm and objectivity, not to mention less shrillness and overacting on the part of those who deliver the news, can make life less stressful and more bearable and still keep us informed.

9)  Promote the virtue of silence in the streets. Our streets are way too noisy with people honking their horns on the road in traffic and when they “announce” their presence as they get home. People who walk along the streets at night talk too loudly and seem unmindful that people in their homes may already be sleeping. Generally, we could all be more considerate of our neighbors by toning down our noise level in public.

10)  Clean up all the waterways so that they can  be beautiful once again and be used for public transport at the same time. Don’t tell me it’s not possible. The Thames in London used to be a cesspool but, with political will, they cleaned it up.

11) Where we can put the phone cables and power lines underground, let us do so that we may see the skies without these ugly lines obstructing our view. Believe me, this simple act will transform any neighborhood into a cleaner one.

I know there are readers who will be dismissive of all these suggestions. I myself would have scoffed at such an article years ago. I would have dismissed it as a rant of someone who has the option to live somewhere else. Perhaps. But I believe that the reason why many Metro Manilans, or Filipinos nationwide, are inured to ugliness and decay is because they do not see the slow deterioration of their lives. In my case, brief absences make my senses more alive to the changes and I can really see the decline. It’s no different from seeing people on TV every day versus seeing them only once a year. You notice age catching up with them more when you don’t see them often.

Lastly, like everyone else, I have heard all the logical excuses as to why change cannot happen. We have analyzed enough and have been paralyzed as a result for way too long. I believe though that the imperative for things to change is greater than all of the excuses for us to find ways to go around and finally do what needs to be done.

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This is the second to last announcement on the upcoming 40th “Tapping the Creative Universe Workshop” which runs from May 12 to 17 and concludes May 20, 7 to 9 p.m., at 113 B. Gonzales, Loyola Heights, QC. Please call 426-5375 or 0916 855-4303 for a syllabus and reservations.

Visit for a look at what it is about.

This workshop will transform you.