My Love Affair with a Monster

I am in love with a monster and his name is Manila. When you first see him from the airport window, don't judge him by his bad posture, his bad manners, his ugly tattoo. Don't judge him by his round potbelly, the dirty fingernails, the grimy hair brushed back into a ponytail. Don't judge the monster by the way he looks. Beneath his filth and stink he never fails to crack me a smile.

The monster is a chain-smoker, sucking on diesel, and belching pollution. Every morning, a thick blanket of smog rises among his skyscrapers of glass and concrete, shielding the metropolis in a drowsy gray haze. Congested with 12 million people, Manila wakes up early in this kind of morning, demanding buttered pandesal, instant coffee, and Fortune cigarettes.

Without brushing his teeth, his tongue is a thick carpet of the unthinkable. Animal innards find their way in iffy food stalls among the mouths of his city streets. Grilled pig intestines, pig's blood, chicken heads, chicken feet, fried chicks, boiled duck eggs with dead embryos--they make me cringe but not as much as want for more: I crave them.

But when he begins talking, his American English is almost perfect, his native tongue colored with Spanish profanity. Puñeta. His struggles with his American father may have brought him pots of gold: the legions of call centers rising on top of the global wi-jacking industry. But his battles with his Spanish mother carved him the scars of bitter history: the 400-year-old ruins in Intramuros, the bomb craters in the ghost town of Corregidor.

Down his throat and into his potbelly is the weight of decades-worth of beer drinking. Drugged with cheap liquor, cheap cigarettes, and cheap prostitutes, this monster is chasing after diseases. But the beer: they come in different flavors, with varying shades of malt, always ice cold, always satiating my thirst against the dizzying spells of the tropical heat. He knows my weakness is in a bottle of beer on nights I can't sleep.

Tattooed on his left arm is a bad needleprint of the thorned Jesus. His idolatry for Christianity sends him into an annual frenzy of 10 million souls grappling for a touch, a brush, of the Black Nazarene. His churches are immortal, rebuilt over and over after wars, earthquakes, floods. They never fail to rise again. One of them, the gothic San Sebastian Church, is built entirely of steel. If only he could show me the same devotion, I wouldn't have to leave him again.

I always leave him, I never fail to leave him. Because he reeks. It's a disgrace that his armpits are bridled with 42 truckloads of garbage every day. They are jammed with plastic bags, polystyrene, cigarette butts, soiled diapers, unpaired shoes, food wastes of comparative woozy smells you can taste them in your teeth. Take a hike to the shady wastelands of Tondo, Payatas, or Navotas. See for yourself.

But the horror lies not in his garbage dumps. The horror lies in the monsoon rains, when his canals are choked with junk, he drowns in his own flood at least two-floors deep. I saw Manila for what he really is, this naked Manila. With your eyes shut tight, just the smell would send you packing and leaving and never looking back. But I come back, I always come back. I always come back to this monster.

Every time I do, he licks his lips and combs his gray-white hair into the roots of his ponytail. He could be getting old. His legions of aging, ponytailed men in Chinatown and Divisoria scuttle with corrugated boxes on their shoulders, heavy with China-made wares, fabrics, dried fruits, dried fish, faux branded clothing, and disposable gadgetry that will soon swamp city markets in a breeze. I hate the monstrosity of his China-driven economy, but I like the new Blackberry.

But Manila isn't entirely a monster. Look at his hands and you will see the hands of an artist. His hands are vampire-white, clammy with sweat, and green with thick veins. Not only are his hands good at touching shadows, he's good at driving my hunger for art. Libraries, galleries, and museums are tucked in his nape, behind his ears, on the folds of his knees, in between his toes. You may not find them, but they're there.

His hands are the force behind the brush strokes in the National Museum's Spoliarium by Juan Luna, the hand-carved dolls in Ayala Museum's Dioramas, the polished ivory of the Metropolitan Museum's Sleeping Santo Niño, and the naked Cordillera idols in Marikina's Ethnology Museum. I feel his hands in the scene cuts of the yearly Cinemalaya's indie films; in the gestures of dance performers at the Cultural Center of the Philippines; in the pained strums of the guitar among short-lived Filipino bands; in the line breaks of manilacentric poets writ and abandoned in moldy libraries' anthologies; in the spontaneous spraypaints of graffiti worms boring through the cracked walls of broken-down buildings; in the abortive MMDA street murals; in cagey pedestrian fences, the hypercolored metal overpasses, the quivering a cappella of blind children in a Quiapo underpass. Quite impossibly, I cannot appreciate his beauty if it not for his beastly deformities.

Beyond his hands, his athletic feet are avatars of strength and courage. When I see the monster dressed in traffic jams, slum networks, beggardry, and long lines of garbage trucks, I also see the knight leading the Philippine Revolution against the tyranny of Mother Spain. I see him carved in stone in Luneta, the sprawling urban park dedicated to that amateur novelist and national hero, Jose Rizal.

It is this intellectual, Rizal, that lights up the fire in my monster's eyes and strikes me with some sense of intimacy. Manila's freedom began with a writer. And like The Oblation throwing himself naked to his country, Rizal welcomed Spain's gunshot behind his head. With his death, he sealed his destiny as a pop culture icon. Exploring Manila without seeing Rizal is not the same.

But I am not in love with a hero. I am in love with a monster. He is a monster with an orange cyclops eye sinking in the horizon of Manila Bay, watching me, one among his 12 million love affairs in the city. Perhaps if I leave him again, I will leave him for good. After all, he is my springboard to other love affairs in the Philippines--its lonesome islands, its hostile ridges, its ghostly Hispanic fortresses. When I leave him, I might as well love again with abandon. But if this monster ever dares to claim me back, he can call on me, his libertine mistress, his monstrous monstress.

// 26 Apr 2014

Her Bones, Marvelously White

Slides 1 to 3: Skull X-Rays

Here, this is her skull, collapsed in one cheek, bridged with cold gray metal. Examine the large forehead, the hollowed eyes, the clenched teeth. On top of the cranium, almost imperceptible, are markings of self-inflicted stab wounds. This skull belongs to a girl who tried to escape the limitations of her body.

Slides 4 to 6: Chest X-Rays

This is her rib cage, enclosing the apparitions of her heart and lungs. No broken bones here, except for other stab marks on the heart area. The ribs blocked the blows to the heart during a time when the girl wanted to empty the blood from her body. Heart normal, lungs normal, besides a few tar masses from a decade and a half of cigarette smoking.

Slides 7 to 9: Pelvis X-Rays

This is her hip bone, protecting the ghostly ventricles of her ovaries. The pelvis has slightly widened, after a miscarriage from an unwanted pregnancy. No child has been formed since. Prior that, infertility, hormonal imbalance, chemical imbalance. Girl has been prescribed with various sorts of drugs since 12 years old.

Slides 10 to 12: Legs and Feet X-Rays

Tears on the cartilage from running and mountain climbing. Girl experimented with the limits of space, pushing to the farthest and the highest peak the body could go. The experiment failed, however. The body, she says, isn't mobile enough a vessel for travel. She adds, The body is incapable of flight, except through imagination.

Slides 13 to 15: Notable Scars and Tattoos

Scar tissues from self-burning, three tattoos from adolescence, other scar tissues due to absentmindedness. Girl continues to collide with her surroundings. No body, no collision, she says. One day, she promises, one day she will rip herself out her body and spend an eternity marveling at everyone else's marvelous bones.

// 20 Jul 2013

The Big Blank House

Our vision is concrete: it begins with a house.

With whatever funding we will generate, we will build a house. This is not just an ordinary house. This is a special one. It's called The Big Blank House. It is a house that will provide free accommodation to traveling writers, artists, and photographers. It is a house that, in the beginning, will be blank and white as a sheet of paper and bare as a canvas, save for a few furniture. It will be pure and innocent as a newborn child. That is, in the beginning.

Each traveler staying here will leave behind a travel-inspired piece of art. It may be a short story, a painting, a poem, a sculpture, or a photograph. It may be something as simple and useful as a blanket or a pillow. It may be something as big, heavy, and intricately designed as a bookshelf. It can be anything, anything at all, as long as it's crafted with the traveler's own hands.

Scribbled somewhere on that piece of art is the traveler's name and country, the date it was made, and the place that inspired it. The traveler may also choose to leave it blank and anonymous. The anonymous object may bear no name and date, but it will flood a handful of other travelers with memories about the person who made it.

The traveler will create it with passion, and may carry the thing with him wherever he goes as a work in progress. The finished product will be a physical evidence that others can see, smell, and touch. By the end of his stay, he will leave it on a wall, on a table, on the floor, or stick it to the ceiling. It will be a physical evidence that the traveler was there once, so briefly, but now no more. His last day will be as sad as a funeral, and all the travelers currently staying in the house will witness it, remember the object and the memories associated with it, and grieve.

With each traveler and each piece of art installed, the house will grow, evolve, and transform into something else: the house will become a home. A warm one, with many cozy rooms, cozy beds, cozy couches, and a nice, cozy living room. "Cozy" will be written all over it. And it's the only word that will strike you on your first visit.

During the day, the house will have wide open windows, overlooking an impossibly blue sea. At night, it will have the lingering smell of freshly brewed coffee. It will have homemade beer, the good company of artists, and a small organic garden, which the travelers will tend to in the morning to soothe another terrible hangover. The walls of the house will listen to these strangers' endless adventures and misadventures, and even the dull stories in between. The walls will listen to every word, every whisper, every idle moment, every ticking silence, and they will listen quietly.

With all the stories stored in its walls, this home will become a character itself, suffused with the celebration of freedom, creativity, life. Like the pure and innocent newborn, we'll nurture this house and dress it with hand-knit clothes. We'll watch it grow and take its first few steps into becoming a living museum. It will keep on growing. It will keep on changing. Changing into something better, something more beautiful with each passing day, that, in due time, no amount of money can ever buy. When once it was a Big Blank House, in the future it will be the complete opposite. Everybody else will wonder why it's called that way, and the house will tell its own story. It will tell its story of how it was built. It will tell its story with every little object and scribble inside it.

Above all, it will be a home that will cleave an impression on every visitor, that will shake you, that will move you, that will make you cry, that will make you bleed, that will make you want to die, because you will believe that life is short; it will pass and you'll be gone. That, like traveling to this house, you will be here once, so briefly and traceless as the flight of a bird, and then, in one blink, you will be no more. And yet short as life is, you can turn it into one colossal adventure if you only go, create, and inspire.

This piece is just a short story. It's a very, very short story that you can finish reading while drinking a cup of coffee. It's a story of imagination and a story of creation. Soon, it will be a story that will inspire like a wildfire; just like the wildfire that we witnessed in one of the deadliest mountains in the country, Mt. Sicapoo: a bright orange glow in the middle of a mountain range's silhouette, against a starry, starry night.

For now, this remains a vision, a promise, something you can keep in a corner of your heart. And then one day, we will start this fire, you and I. It will kindle this vision and piece together the wide, empty lot, the blocks of concrete, the planks of wood, people flying in to build and help. Soon, oh so soon, so soon it's just right there when you wake up: tomorrow, this story will be The Big Blank House, text morphed into form, a real house that you can enter and run around in and live in and be happy.

But you say, Oh, this is just a daydream. Oh, what a fantasy. But when one day you come around a bend, find this curious museum barely remembering its name, and you encounter this text on a wall, you will say, Now I remember. I have read this when it was just a dream. You will walk around the house and say, This feels so real I thought that dream was mine. And it is yours. It has always been yours as it has always been mine. Pure potential, indestructible, a fire that we are starting together as you read this and dream of growing. A fire that will start other fires. It begins with our vision: it begins with our house.

// 23 Mar 2013

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