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.

// Apr 2014

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