The Scents of PGH

You rubberneck at the towering Oblation from the outside: a statue of a naked man facing the watery gray sky, palms up, arms spread like an eagle. It says outright: Look at me! I'm free! And I'm naked! Except for the leaf covering my genitals.

It just rained. The street is wet and muddy. Vehicles speed by to splatter black mud droplets on your pants. An ambulance siren is wailing distantly farther away. Vendors have claimed property of the sidewalk. Around you is the mixed smell of vehicle exhaust, roasted peanuts, and boiled sweet corn.

Inside the gates are oxygen-generating trees. The air is cooler and nose-friendly. There's the overcrowded parking area bordered with rusty chains. Up ahead, the main building of Philippine General Hospital is redolent of Rome's Pantheon. You step inside the grand entrance, tread on red carpet reeking collectively of people's feet, and begin working on your olfactive sense. The guard greets you a pleasant morning and frisks your bag with a magic wand.

Instantly there is a whirlwind of people shuffling around and queuing from teller windows. They smell of sweat, cheap cologne, and bathroom soap. The walls are painted haystack-yellow, hanged occasionally with oversized paintings. There's a whiff of sneeze and Jollibee hamburgers. A middle-aged woman dragging along a little boy approaches you and says she needs P18 for fare home. But you don't hear what she says. You're attention is focused on her missing upper teeth. I'm sorry, what? you say. She walks away.

You realize your bladder is about to burst so you scuttle to the nearest restroom. You queue before five women all covering their nose. The restroom is badly lit, five out of six fluorescent lights broken, and it smells like a stockroom of hoarded piss and roach droppings. Your turn, the toilet is at floor level. You notice a string of a mop's thread on the floor in between your shoes. You unzip your pants and sit to piss. Upon closer inspection, the string isn't really from a mop's thread; it's actually a dead brown worm.

Your consultation with your surgeon is an hour away, and you dawdle along the corridors to kill time. You pass by the Obstetrics and Gynecology ward which reeks of talcum powder and breast milk. Two maintenance men block the doorway rolling out six giant garbage bags while saying, Makikidaan lang. May trabaho din kami. The four people walking against them flatten themselves on the wall.

The walkway to the next ward is filled with the dull hum of air-conditioning. A uniformed boy mops the floor and the odor reminds you of a claustrophobic locker room cramped with unwashed monster mops. You pass by the Trauma Division ward and your nose is stuffed with the stench of rotting fish and undusted mattresses. An autistic young boy plods on the corridor, seemingly spellbound by the sound pattern of his heavy leather sandals. Two doctorate interns talk conyo, one of them wearing a sunday dress beneath a lab coat. Her face is freckled, melanin-deprived, foreign, but she speaks with a thick Filipino accent. She has the height of a beauty queen, and her skin is as white and soft as toilet paper.

At your left is the morgue, its glass windows obscured with grime and protected with metal wires. A stone appears to have been thrown at its glass exit door, leaving a hole where you can peek into. You shut one eye and lean toward the peephole. Inside is a morgue converted into a kitchen. Next to kitchen sinks and stoves heating giant pots and pans are the morgue drawers. The ceiling fan filters the light casting fluttering shadows everywhere. People in dark uniforms roam around staggering like zombies. Kick in some satanic chants and a zombie soundtrack and this could pass off as a cannibalistic horror video. You move along.

Contrary to popular belief, Philippine General Hospital doesn't smell entirely of antiseptic, isopropyl alcohol, and festering open wounds; only the Emergency Room smells that way. Some wards smell of scented air-conditioning and oxygen tanks. Some smell of lemon and hand wash. Some smell of wet paint and concrete dust. At a particular ward, the Pediatrics Department, there is the omnipresent smell of soiled diapers. And there standing on one bed bunk, a kid with protruding ribs and a swollen belly is dancing while singing the Madagascar theme song: I like to move it, move it. She likes to move it, move it. He likes to move it, move it. I like taaah. Move it!

The hallways have the incessant stench of wet earth and those filthy rags used for wiping tables in restaurants. The canteen smells of fried rice, silog variants, and sizzling salisbury steaks. Occasionally you come across someone with a balloon neck or someone with a tube plugged up his nose. Then a polio-stricken doctor passes you by like a macho dancer trying to walk and wave his body at the same time.

You glance at your watch and figure you still have fifteen minutes left. Straight ahead are two ATMs, one being refilled with bills ten inches thick. Three gorilla-faced bodyguards wearing black combat suits stand feet apart looking for suspecting assailants. Tied at the nozzle of a guard's rifle is a misplaced white ribbon. What is that innocent white ribbon doing there? The owner of that rifle stares at you staring at the ribboned nozzle which is pointing at the other guard's foot. The guards look at each other, look at you, and you all look away.

You head toward your surgeon's office at the next building and pass by the Immaculate Conception chapel. A broken car horn is blaring forever from the parking area. There's the smell of rubber and plastic flowers. You glance at the altar and notice the pot of tulip flowers looking like a congregation of sex organs. The Jesus on the cross is Caucasian, and his abs reminds you of an abs-toning curling machine from Home Shopping Network. The priest is saying, Do not wait to get rich to help others! Do not wait to win the Lotto to donate to charity, to the orphanage, to this chapel! Do not wait to get rich before you start helping people because you can start helping right now!

Then you realize it's raining again. You take a folded umbrella from your bag and press a button with a flop. But the moment you step at the wide open space to the next building, the rain stops. It doesn't even grant your umbrella a bloody raindrop. This pisses you off, but you move along anyway.

// 27 Feb 2009

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